1637 No Peace Beyond The Line – Snippet 35

“Ah, Maarten Tromp, you are delighting in his torment of me,” van Walbeeck lamented histrionically. “Soldiers, particularly jongeren like this Cantrell fellow, have little appreciation of the trials and tribulations that an administrator must endure to produce such a grand spectacle.” He waved a hand at the ship-crowded harbor. “Why, there must be well over one-hundred ships, out there!”

“Only if you count the boats from St. Kitts,” Eddie needled, barely able to repress a smile.

“I do count them!” van Walbeeck exclaimed. “Why should I not?”

“Well…they’re small. And they’re loaded with goats.”

“Exactly why they figure in my totals, you young ingrate! Those goats are the future of this island.”

“Well,” Tromp temporized, “their temperaments do resemble those of some of your councilors, Jan.”

Who feigned horror. “My councilors? Bite your tongue, Admiral! I inherited half of them — and would have been glad to be denied that inheritance. And as far as their resemblance to goats, it might go beyond temperament. Musen, for instance –“

Eddie gulped back a guffaw; Hans Musen did resemble a goat. Sort of. His face was certainly narrow and expressionless.

His incompletely stifled laugh broke the parody of pomposity; the two older men chuckled as well. Even Tromp, whose smile persisted faintly.

Eddie matched it with one of his own. “You seem pretty cheery, Admiral.”

Tromp shrugged, nodded toward the ships. “There are enough guns afloat out there to fight off any Spanish fleet that might happen to sail at us from over the horizon today. We haven’t been able to say that since coming to the New World. So today — and just today — I shall breathe easy.”

 Jan van Walbeeck nodded. The three spent a few moments watching as lighters ran in, and others struggled out against the wind for their next load, relying on the slow process of back and fill to push beyond the breakers. No less than a dozen skiffs and skerries were making courier runs between ships, then ship to shore and back again. On the horizon, the cerulean sky met the sapphire sea and above the sun shined and smiled upon the busy labors of both seamen and landsmen as they brought their wares together. “It’s like a spring fair,” Eddie murmured.

“It is,” van Walbeeck nodded in agreement. “And a market day, the first of the season. The first anyone has seen since leaving Recife. Or home.”

“Yeah,” Eddie agreed, “It’s kinda hard to believe.”

The other two looked at him.

“All the changes, I mean.” He swept a hand toward the bright new roofs of Oranjestad. “Maybe you gu — fellows don’t see it as clearly because you’ve been here, watching it grow through all its stages. But when I got here last year . . .” Eddie shook his head. “It was a tent-city with a few buildings and a fort. One store, no trade, water rationing, barely enough food to survive. And you were burning dung instead of wood for everything except cooking. And now look at it.”

They did. Two church steeples, one in the last phases of completion, were tall above dozens of wood-frame homes. Privies had replaced rudimentary waste disposal, a great deal of which had involved using the bay and other beaches as the primary means of public sanitation. The people in the streets no longer pale or burned, but copper-bronze and, while lean, were no longer gaunt. Children had the energy to play again. Laughing, they were weaving in and out of the stalls where the adults, who had clustered together to sell and buy, sent imprecations and shaken fists in their chaotic wake.

It was tiny and plain, compared to the great Spanish cities of the New World — Havana, Cartagena, Santo Domingo, Vera Cruz — but conversely, it had none of their oppressive edifices and immense populations of impoverished, despised, and resentful mestizo and zambo shack-dwellers. Instead, this day had brought out its growing pulse of optimism and energy, of new possibilities and expansion. 

“It’s been transformed,” Eddie said, turning back to face the two Dutchmen. Who were smiling at him. “What?” he asked.

“Oranjestad isn’t the only thing that’s been transformed,” van Walbeeck observed with a wink. “It often happens to happy husbands, I’ve been told.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Eddie said. His denial didn’t sound convincing, not even to himself.

Tromp studied the edge of the shade in which they all stood. “While not as precise as your up-time wrist-watches, my years at sea have given me much occasion to refine my ability to tell the time by the angle of the sun’s rays. Consider the crisp shadows of the battlements projected just beyond our feet. I am quite certain that it shows me the time to within ten minutes of what I would see on the face of a clock. And that is close enough to know that you, Commodore Cantrell, were five minutes late. At least. And that is certainly a transformation.”

“Oh, indeed!” van Walbeeck added, eyes sparkling. “I remember a time — perhaps as little as a year ago? — when Eddie was never tardy for anything, for any reason! And when we asked him about that almost painful punctuality, Maarten, he said…Now, what did he say, again?”

Now Maarten was smiling. “I believe it was a phrase he had picked up from his commander, the redoubtable Admiral Simpson, who advised him to make it the basis of his life in the navy. Specifically, that being on time means arriving ‘thirty minutes before thirty minutes before’ the appointed time. And so the Commodore was. Unfailingly. It was most impressive.”

“Insufferable, even,” interjected van Walbeeck.

“But now?” concluded Tromp. “Five minutes late. At least. And no longer an entirely uncommon occurrence. As I said, a transformation.”

“But –” Eddie tried to object.

“Now what could cause such a transformation, Maarten?”

“I cannot imagine.”

“Well, let’s see: it might be a life of boredom. But trifling recent events such as surviving battles and tempests seem to belie that hypothesis. Reduced responsibilities? Heavens, no: anything but that, as I’m sure the commodore himself would be the first to confirm. The ocean air? But from what I can discern, the surroundings and climate seem to invigorate our young friend, rather than inducing torpor. For do we not often see him bathing in the ocean, Maarten?”

“I go swimming. Swimming,” Eddie objected. To no effect.

“Maybe,” van Walbeeck pseudo-mused, “it is because he rarely bathes alone. Inconceivably, he usually takes his wife with him. Or so I’m told. Is that true, Maarten?”

Tromp shrugged. “I have heard it mentioned. But only when he goes to one of the northern beaches. For modesty’s sake, I imagine.”

“Oh, for modesty’s sake, yes. Certainly,” van Walbeeck nodded vigorously. “But he always seems particularly susceptible to tardiness after those outings. Probably from the exertion of swimming in the windward surf.” Van Walbeeck’s impish grin looked incongruous on a man of his considerable proportions. “Because I’m certain it would not have anything to do with his wife, now, would it? Not then . . . or now?”

 Tromp glanced over at his young friend. “Commodore, either you are getting sunburned standing in the shade, or you are flushed.”

Eddie held up his hands. “All right, all right. Target practice is over. Yes, I’m a young husband. Yes, I have a beautiful wife. Yes, she’s smart, and funny, and kind, and . . .”

Van Walbeeck put his hand on Eddie’s shoulder. “And she has deep and powerful feelings.” His voice had grown suddenly and genuinely serious. “I have seen her helping Dr. Brandão with his youngest patients. I saw her fighting in the trenches last year, as much a leader to the women as O’Rourke and Michael McCarthy were to the men. She is a wonderful, splendid being: an improbable combination of angel and valkyrie. So you must forgive the teasing of two older men who can only look on in admiration, wonder, and perhaps some small measure of envy. Because we know why you are late in the mornings,” he smiled, almost fatherly, “and we would be baffled if you were not.”

Tromp, laconic as usual, merely nodded. “It is a good transformation, Eddie. Now, here comes Jol, so let’s to business, shall we?”