1635: A Parcel of Rogues – Snippet 01


By Eric Flint and Andrew Dennis


May, 1634

Fareweel to a’ our Scottish fame,

                                  Fareweel our ancient glory;

                                  Fareweel ev’n to the Scottish name,

                                  Sae fam’d in martial story.

Chapter 1

“All right, let’s put our backs to it, “said Stephen Hamilton, as the barge carrying the rest of the escapees from the Tower of London began to pull away downriver, Harry Lefferts waving over the stern.

Hamilton waved back, then turned to look north, toward the left bank of the Thames. “We’ve some rowing to do,” he carried on, “and upriver, what’s more. Unlike those lucky sods.”

Darryl McCarthy grabbed one of the oars racked down the center of the boat and swung it overhead to drop into a rowlock. As the boat turned gently in the current, it brought the receding barge into view. “Hallelujah,” he said softly, “I’m finally rid of the Schoolmarm From Hell.”

He heard a mild cough and turned to see Cromwell frowning at him from the other end of the thwart he was sitting on. “What?” he asked.

“Young fellow, if you propose to be my recording angel as I go up and down in the world,” Cromwell said, “I would ask that you not blaspheme like the devil you make me out to be.”

Darryl’s jaw dropped.

“He’s got a point, Darryl,” Gayle Mason called over. She was getting settled by the tiller while Stephen Hamilton was organising himself on the rearmost thwart alongside Paddy Welch. “You got a potty-mouth on you.”

Darryl bit down on the first retort that came to mind. And the second. Because, he realised, both of them had been pretty ripe. Not four-letter stuff, but then that wasn’t nearly so big a deal nowadays. His mom hadn’t stood for Taking The Name In Vain, and hadn’t stood for it in capital letters with quite a lot of volume. Most folks nowadays set the bar on blasphemy even lower than she did. Some set it even lower still. Lowest of all for, let’s face it, Puritans. Like, for instance, one Oliver Cromwell.

Not so long ago, while maybe being a bit shamefaced if a lady’d called him on it, Darryl wouldn’t have cared two cents what Oliver Cromwell thought. Not Oliver get-you-to-hell-or-to-Connaught Cromwell. Not Oliver butcher-of-Drogheda Cromwell. He could have cared less what the man — demon, rather! — thought of the way a McCarthy spoke.

Now, though…

“All right, sorry. I’ll watch my mouth.” Goodbye, Schoolmarm From Hell. Hello, Puritan Watchdog. All the more ironic — a word he’d learned well from that very schoolmarm, who’d been amused by his detestation of the man turning into wary respect — that he’d insisted on following Cromwell to make sure he didn’t get up to the atrocities he’d committed in a future history that was now never to be.

“Backs to it, lads,” Hamilton called. “Mister Lefferts has left us transport at Stratford. Only a couple of miles up the Lee. Mistress Mason knows the way. Master and Mistress Mackay, Vicky, watch forward if you would. Now, ready oars and — stroke!”

The tide was running with them, fortunately, and the day was shaping up to be a cool morning. Darryl dug his oar in and pulled, watching Hamilton for the right way to do it. Damned if he was going to admit not really knowing what he was doing. Besides, how hard could it be? He’d paddled canoes back up-time, once or twice. There were six men rowing — Hamilton and Welch on the thwart astern of him, and Captain Leebrick and Dick Towson at the front. Alex, Julie and Vicky were perched in the bows on top of the load of baggage up there, with Gayle Mason perched on the crate holding her radio at the back.

Gayle certainly looked like she was enjoying the ride, the sea breeze up the Thames ruffling her hair as she scanned the river ahead. Darryl, for his part, began to find that rowing got old very fast. Like, five minutes fast.

“So, Stratford,” he said, timing his words between strokes of the oar, “that the place Shakespeare’s from?”

“Different Stratford,” Towson said from behind him. “Master Will, God rest him, was a Wiltshire lad. My da knew him. I can sort of remember him, a bit, but I was only a nipper when he went home to die.”

“There are a lot of Stratfords,” Cromwell remarked, leaning into his oar. “Three in Buckinghamshire that I can think of.” Stroke. “I used to go fishing at Fenny Stratford, when I was a lad.” Stroke. “We had cousins there. I remember –” Stroke. “It was a long day’s ride with my father.”

“Two in London,” Hamilton remarked. “We’re going to the one on the Lea. Bit of a hole on the Colchester road. Marsh country.”

“Making good time,” Darryl said, after a few minutes, thinking the while that maybe the unit of rowing travel wasn’t the mile, it was the backache. Or maybe that was why they called it knots, on boats. Because you got knots in your damned spine. Not that he could say anything with Vicky right behind him. Admitting pain in front of the ladies was bad enough, but a guy’s intended? He’d laugh while they sawed his leg off, if it came to that.

“Still downriver,” Hamilton said. “We’ll be turning up the Lea in a little while.”

“Get harder then,” Cromwell observed.

“We’re catching up to the barge,” Julie called back. “I reckon you guys should take a breather. Besides, the testosterone is crinkling the paint on this thing.”

“Up oars,” Hamilton called, and swivelled on his thwart. “The what is doing what?”

“Oh, come on,” Julie said, grinning back as all six rowers glared at her, Darryl hardest of all since he’d known what she was talking about. “Nobody wants to be the sissy who doesn’t row as hard as everyone else. Give it up, we’re not being followed and not likely to be for hours.”

“Well, I wasn’t rowing any harder than I learned as a lad,” Towson said, “and Master Hamilton set the stroke. How about you fellows?”

“Me neither,” Hamilton said. “And of course we’re going faster than the barge, they’ve got fifty souls aboard and there’s but the nine of us in this cutter.”

“Isn’t this a wherry?” Welch asked. He was a little flushed in the face, Darryl was pleased to note.

“No, a wherry’s smaller, they’re those little boats the watermen use upriver,” Towson said. “They have to be of a size set by statute to be licensed. This is bigger, I think Master Lefferts bought this one off a ship. Or stole it, if he didn’t like the ship’s master. I reckon it was a ship’s pulling cutter, the kind they use for towing them out of a lee harbour.”