The Mermaid's Farthingale, Halifax
The hearthfire can’t dispel the bite of frost, especially in the farther, shadowier corners of the public house. A winter squall batters the windows and shakes the door on its hinges, sending a steady draft of frigid air skimming across the floor.
Some men sit hunched over grimy tables shoved in corners; others cluster on benches around the hearth. A boy is employed carrying bowls of stew and tankards of ale and watered rum (or rummed water, as the night advances and the clientele might be expected to become a little less discerning). One of the figures by the hearth waves the boy over to sit and throws a friendly arm around his shoulder.
“My lad, the year was seventeen seventy-eight!”
A local, eyes watering from the cold, gets halfway in the door before he hears those unwelcome words. He slams it against the wind. “How I wish I was in Sherbrooke now!” The Pirate’s head jerks up.
“Ye’ve heard it afore? Ah, well. A different tale, then. You won’t have heard this one, about the saltiest seaman ever to thread a ship through the Orkneys. Alas! for the Admiralty wasted what they had, and he’s now at the bottom of the hungry sea.”
As one, the room recites, “God damn them all!”
“God damn them a—!” The Pirate glares around the room, unable to catch anyone’s eye. The kitchen boy is entranced with a bit of bread and cheese and seems not to have heard the interruption. For a moment, it looks like the story might be averted.
Tucked in the shadowed corner behind the hearth, a cloaked man raises his head. “Go on, run your tale up the main truck. I’ll hear it, if you’ve still a mind to tell.”
“Aye, this is a warming yarn on a cold night. I’ll lay a point to windward of you.”
Three regulars immediately make for the door and the bartender starts to pour out a line of pints in order of decreasing strength.
“We first crossed swords in eighteen ought-five: him, a young midshipman already showing great promise in the naval arts; me, a bit of trouble on the rum-runner Eromenos. I was far too young at the time to think of making fast to an officer and made no mind of him. But a few years later, when I took a ship for my own, of course I was looking to be spliced.
“I met him again as a second Lieutenant and gave him a warm reception. He wore the scar of it forever on his cheek, and from that point our fates were sealed, each to the other: my Nemesis, as long as breath was in his body.
“For years we circled the main sea in pursuit of each other, ears sharp for any news, eyes alert for a sighting. Many a man tried to board me in those days, but I would have none!”
The storyteller pauses and stares mournfully into the flickering hearth. “I miss him, boy. He was the best Nemesis a devil like me could ask for.” The boy attempts to make himself the picture of understanding, in case his input is required. At the same time, he eases out from under the Pirate’s arm and slides backwards, until caught in place by a loud creak. The Pirate’s gaze remains fastened on a distant, sparkling past, and he takes a breath to continue.
“My Nemesis was the bravest, most noble Commander that ever put a sextant to the horizon! Did I ever tell you — I was rescued by him, once? That was while I sailed for Spain (not the first time, which I must have told you ended poorly for everyone involved. Since then, I had changed my name thrice and was once again unknown to the Spanish navy when I took up as a privateer, you follow me?). I was set upon by an English man-of-war, the Theban Band. We were in running battle through the night because her captain simply wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer."
The boy is off the bench and quietly ferrying tankards to the Pirate’s table. A snoring drunk tips over, jolts awake, and blinks at the proceedings.
“Well, I wasn’t going to hang around a character like that any longer than I had to, but he refused to take a hint. My poor Hyacinthus lost two of her masts and was taking on water rather badly. We manned the pumps, but it was clear we would not hold out for long. But I continued to refuse that bastard on the Theban Band. Then, out of the rising sun, Erastes came on us!” The Pirate sighs and shivers a little — from the cold — and his eyes drift closed for a moment. “He was following me, I’m sure!”
The boy and the drunk go out together, in search of the privy, or perhaps a story they haven’t each heard a hundred times before.
“I immediately ran up a flag of surrender for him and he put out boats to fetch me on board (and my crew as well). He immediately shut them in the brig, which was only proper for such scum of the seas as I had on board. Oh, he was so dashing and wise! I was his captive for weeks and weeks and weeks and we sailed all over and it was just — the loveliest time.” His breath comes a little bit fast: he's overwhelmed by memory. “Finally he received orders to put in at Isla del C— and he had to turn us over to the governor of the island to be ransomed. Of course I wouldn’t go, but he turned a burning gaze at my face and entreated me by my Christian name, that until I were off his ship he could have no thought but for the safety of his prisoners and would never fight in a battle again if I remained. I agreed instantly, for his sake.”
He sighs. “Have you ever had a nemesis like mine? No one has. Ah, how I miss him.”
The Pirate downs his rum and raps the table. “Grog, boy! Get me sommat to hoist to my sorrow.” His flailing hand finds the nearest tankard, and he tosses a coin on the table without looking back. “My thanks, lad.
“He died, have I told you? Six years ago. Ah… What I wouldn’t give, to have my Nemesis back on the high sea. He was always a bit of a tease, you know (but so was I — we thought we had forever), but if he never looked at me again…. Just to know he was out there….”
He’s quiet for a long while, still lost in the crackling fire. Outside, the wind has begun to die down, but a sudden blast rattles the shutters. “Did I ever say you how he died? In the lines, of course, nothing less for my brave Nemesis. The great fleets of England and France tore each other apart— And for what? I ask you, by God! There never was a better.
“His Ganymede became trapped between a French eighty-four and the Unspeakable Vice, a better named ship I’ve never heard. Their guns tore her deck from deck and limb from limb and she sank in a flash. Not a single man survived.” He makes a soft sound. “That were the end of my career, the day I received word. I kept the Patroclus another season, but the heart went out of’t. Now, I’m as you see me: a broken man on a Halifax pier.”
The pub is dark and quiet. The bartender climbed out the back window thirty minutes prior, after collecting the little drift of coins. There’s one last tankard, mostly water, on the table. Only the Pirate is left… and one other: in the dim corner behind the fireplace, a hooded form has listened from the start. The hearth is now barely more than coals, and the faint light gleams off the mourner’s tear-damp cheek.
The cloaked figure stands and steps up to the hearthstone. The Pirate jolts to his feet in startlement with the crash of a log onto the fire; then, with a hasty motion, the stranger puts back his shroud.
A curl of bark catches light and flares, sending frenzied shadows crawling across the ceiling and leaving his face an unrecognizable mask. Their gazes tangle like ropes in a squall, and as the firelight steadies and grows, the Pirate begins to find familiar waters in the ocean of his eyes. He puts his hand up to the scarred, beloved cheek.
The Englishman’s voice is rough with emotion. “I just made Halifax yesterday.”
— fin —