SAVE THAT SHE WAS MORE comely than most, and young and willing; the girl in the grimy bed was like any other girl shaped for the sport of sailors. Just as there was a price for this foul room under the eaves of the inn, so there was a price on her willingness; and they must both be paid, cash on the barrel-head, before she would spread her legs, even in enticement.
Jenny the tavern-girl was not alone in this world of sinful commerce. She had her protector, a flash bully- boy with a villainous tongue, who bought and sold such meat, whether fresh or stale, from his station in the ale-bar of the Saracen’s Head, and took his own pleasure when trade was slack. While Jenny and her sisters plied their craft, the rogue whore-master kept his watch below, alert for trouble.
But there would be no trouble for Matthew Lawe, on this his last night ashore in the Pool of London. He had paid his scot, from the last scourings of a shrunken purse, and thus could rule the crib and the girl till sun-up. A straw pallet, two coarse blankets, and a wanton who would keep all warm and lively, made up his royal realm. It was enough for sailors who had run through their money.
In the space of the days ashore, Matthew had spent all his hard-won pay on Jenny, and on this attic room, which stank like a pole-cat’s rump at night and by dawn- light, was as soiled and be-greased as a tub of swill. But the girl, praise God, was better than the room: a pretty wanton, her generous flesh formed for a lover’s hands like the soft billow of a sail: merry with laughter, and her only itch a lusty hankering for the root of man. Certainly she was enough for a sailor who must, on the morrow, rise and shine in a different endeavour.
After the first stormy bout they were wakeful, because they knew there would be more sport; a sailor on his last night was not a boy who gave all in a single spouting, nor an old man with only one spout to tap. By the light of the guttering candle, they supped their spiced ale together from the hooped leathered tankard, and smiled companionably, and waited for the tide to rise again. Meanwhile, they murmured their thoughts.
‘I wish I could lie here forever,’ Matthew said. ‘Who would choose to go to sea, when he can swim in such a sweet inlet?’
‘Have you the money?’ the girl asked. She knew the answer, but it was a woman’s task to make all plain. Men might dream; women must be watchful.
‘Then go you must . . . where is it you’re bound, Matt?’
‘Wash your ears, wench! I’ve told you, times enough.’
‘I’ll wash what parts I choose. Too many sailors tell me their tales. Can I keep score of them?’
He thrust that thought away. Tonight she was his, as on all the other nights. If the morrow was someone else’s province, he did not choose to hear it.
‘We go exploring. To seek the North-West Passage, may be.’
‘Nay.’ it was true for this night anyway. ‘Tis a fine strong ship. The bark Discovery. And the captain is Henry Hudson. A great man by all account. And soft also, they say.’
Jenny smiled her lewd smile. ‘Who wants a soft man’
‘Not you, and that I know! But a soft commander- that’s another colour of horse. We want a captain who will victual us honestly, and not whip us all to death. If we find a way to Cathay, or the Indies, it will not be by beating and starving. A stout leader and a willing crew, treated fair- that’s the berth I seek. I wish to return!’
‘Will you bring back a treasure?’
‘Aye. I’ll bring back all I have and all I find, and give it to you again.’
‘Best of all, I want a jeweled stomacher!’
‘You shall have one . . . What is it, for the sake of God?’
‘Do you know nothing, Matt? . . . It spreads from here to here-‘ she indicated her ample breasts, and then the first curves of her groin.
‘It goes a-top of the skirt, it is sewn with jewels or gold rings, it sets off a gown like a rainbow, and if I wear my buckle shoes in the same–‘
‘Enough, enough!’ Matthew said laughing. ‘I have the likeness of it . . .I will bring it, if I can find such a treasure. . .Though I do not choose to see you covered from here to here. . .Save by myself.’
‘You bring it to me,’ Jenny told him warmly, ‘and you may cover me ten times over.’
‘With my own treasures.’ she had said enough, and looked enough, to set the tide mounting again.
‘If they be rich enough for you.’
She lay back, as ready as a wench could be. ‘There, you are the richest prince of all.’
‘Not too old for your choice?’ She looked at him surprised.
‘How can a lad like you be too old? I never met such a one in my life!’ Perhaps she always said this, perhaps she did not. ‘Prime as the Derby Ram!’
‘But how old would you say?’
‘What game is this?’
‘Five and twenty?’
‘Near the mark . . . now lie still, till I bury my treasure again. Then you may search it out till you have dug all dry.’
He would be four-and -forty, by his mother’s oath, this Michaelmas, but he felt like five-and -twenty as he took her again.
Afterwards she sank into sleep like a log of drift- wood lulled below the surface of life by the greater power of the sea; and Matthew was left to rule the kingdom of the land. It was no great heritage. While he swigged his cold ale in the darkness, the room itself grew colder. Jenny stole the best portion of the blankets, as the candle-wick flickered, begging piteously to be snuffed; even the ale, near the bottom of the tankard, had turned sour, needing courage in the swallowing.
He would have a fine thick head on the morrow, when he must board the Discovery and take up the sweat and slink of life again without the fourth part of a silver shilling to show for his pains. The sottish skull would be all . . . While one voice told him: ‘So lives every sailor, since land and water were divided,’ another rebuked him with a mournful question: ‘If this is the sum of a sailor’s toil, is he not better dead?’
Matthew savoured as best he could, the last of the ale, the last of his purse, and the last of the land, as the sadness of the after- love made all else seem desolate. If nothing could be counted on save spent drink, spent money, and spent manhood, then what a swinish couch had Christ their Saviour spread for the limbs of man!
Yet it was a bed he must lie on. Though he knew it by rote, he could not change it. No single man of the company of sailors could alter such laws, set as they were by God, or by greater folk, or by the foolishness of mariners themselves. He was doomed to a squalid calendar of life; doomed to make a harsh voyage, to come ashore rich ( by the humble standards of his trade), and then to drink his full, lay claim to a wench, spend on her a year’s earnings in a few days or weeks, and ship out again without a groat in his pocket.
This wheel of fortune, immemorial as sun-rise and set, furnished girls with trinkets, tavern-keepers with money, men with the pox and a splitting head, and ships with crews-and that was all, and ever would be. Yet it was an honest web of life, for all its brutish strands. He had grown used to it, and it served him well enough, apart from the darkest thoughts of all. Though Drake their famous Captain now slept in his leaden hammock, fathoms down in the Nombre Dios Bay off Panama, the brave line continued; victory over the Great Armada had flavoured a whole nation with pride in its new destiny, which they would never yield, and sailors with a sort of repute, of which they could not be robbed.
Matthew tipped the tankard for its last bitter dregs. Sailors could be robbed of all else. . . And pride, in truth, was only for the great commanders: pride did not bake bread, nor buy beef nor ale nor wenches hot and cold. Pride, especially, was not for himself. He had not earned it: he had earned only the ordured side of its coin. So he must go on and on, until- and now those dark thoughts came flooding in and drowned everything else in a swift nightmare of doubt and fear.
He could not readily believe his doom, as proclaimed by the mad old Witch of Drumnin so long ago; but by now he had begun to live with such fancies. He was four-and – forty, yet his body had not moved with the years, nor had his face altered by a line or his hair by single lock. He was the same man. Could such fantastic tales of cock and bull be true?
The chill wind sighed in the eaves; behind the wainscot the rats scuttled and slid. No comfort there save cold and corruption. He lay back, and by long habit plucked at a string of courage. Even these fearful thoughts were part of his calendar, part of every last night ashore; and what he must do now, to defeat them, took hold on him again. Some divine or devil’s spark came to his aid, reminding him of the sovereign cure for such despair.
‘Tomorrow he sailed, but tomorrow was not yet. Tonight was still with him, and indeed still lay at his side. Tonight was still asleep, but not for long . . .
He turned towards Jenny, and pressed and stroked her flank until she awoke. She grumbled briefly of sailors’ wicks unsnuffable, and their ways with a poor girl who had served full measure already; but she proved as prime as ever when she had warmed to it. He murmured: ‘Tis the last time,’ and she answered: ‘Fore God, I hope so! I will need crutches after this!’ and then she made a sturdy crutch of the best timber to hand.
On a whispered command she mounted him. It was the way of love he liked best, a true sailor’s holiday: above him the fine sails swelled and dipped and tugged, while he lay aback and kept the main- mast tall and trim. To rise like a sword into those willing thighs, to watch her jaunty bubs tossing as she swung to and fro, to see her face in the last of the candle- light glow and grow wild, to hear her gasp ‘Thrust up, sailor! Now!’ as the twin tides of love crested and broke- this was the answer to all!
What a wench it! She was not just any dock- side drab. She loved her work, but she loved him best of all.Truly loved him! She had told him so!
When he slept at last, sweatily, snoring in unison with a jaded bed-fellow, he dreamed of apes and peacocks, roaring seas and soft strands, and mermaids with gleaming breasts and tails which happily parted. He awoke by dawn-light, to see Jenny out of his bed, and astride the stone pot in the corner.
The spell of love was over, and it was time to leave.
Swallowing against a foul tongue, he dressed and stowed his gear. When Jenny, snug beneath the blankets again, received her farewell, a fond slap on the rump, she did not stir. Matthew hoisted his sea- chest on his shoulder, descended by the creaking stairway, and crossed the evil smelling tap-room..The surly pimp at his post nodded, letting him go without argument. Empty sailors were no loss.
Out in the pale sunlight, Matthew tautens certain idle sinews and began to stride across the cobble-stones towards St Katherine’s Pool. It was morning of Low Sunday, and the April of 1610.
Courtesy of: The Master Mariner (Book 1) by Nicholas Monsarrat, Cassel London 1978