1636 The China Venture – Snippet 19

PART III: 1635

On the road to Mandalay,

Where the old Flotilla lay,

With our sick beneath the awnings when we went to Mandalay!

Rudyard Kipling, Mandalay

Chapter 15

Eastern Indian Ocean

February 1635

Judith Leyster and her sketchbook had become a familiar site on the open decks of the Rode Draak. At first, she had confined herself to the poop and quarter decks. The general policy on an East Indiaman was to keep the crew and the passengers separate, and the crew was not permitted aft of the main mast unless their duties called them there.

However, one of her sketches, of their consort the Groen Feniks, had caught the captain’s eye and fancy. The sketch had ended up in the captain’s cabin and Judith had gotten the captain’s express permission to go forward when she wished, provided she stayed out of the crew’s way.

Judith Leyster watched and sketched in quick alternation as several sailors stepped out on the footropes attached to the yard of the main topsail, and on command, tied the reef points, short lines laced through the sail, around the yard to reduce the sail’s area.

Sails had to be shortened if the wind increased in strength to the point that it was feared that if the trend continued, the force of the wind on the full expanse of sail would carry away the sail, the mast, or both. Reefing was the “new-old” way of doing that. The sails had several rows of reef points, so the sail could be single, double or even triple reefed, depending on how much the sail area needed to be reduced.

One of the ship’s officers had told Judith, at the beginning of the voyage, that reefing was new to them. Reefs had been used on lower sails as early as the thirteenth century, but at the beginning of the sixteenth century they had fallen out of favor. Instead sailors attached extra pieces of sail cloth, called bonnets and drabblers, to the base sail when winds were light, and removed them when the wind freshened. It was an even more ancient method of adjusting the sail area than reefing, one that would have been known to the Swedish crew’s Viking forebears.

In the old time line, reefing hadn’t reappeared until the 1650s, but once shipwrights and skippers had been exposed to up-time nautical literature, the more innovative ones had become early adopters. Or re-adopters. It had been hard on the Rode Draak‘s crew at first, as none of them had prior experience with reefing, and thus the techniques had to be reinvented.

Judith looked up at the sky, and then quickly added the interesting cloud she had spotted to her sketch. The cloud was not in fact behind the sailors, but that’s why the term “artistic license” had been coined. She was so intent on her work that she didn’t realize someone was standing right beside her until he spoke.

“I understand that you’re a painter,” said Ambassador Salvius.

Judith stopped working to answer him. “Yes, sir, that’s correct. I became a member of the Haarlem Guild of Saint Luke in 1633.”

“What was your masterwork?”

“A self-portrait.”

“I am sure it was very fetching.” Judith blinked at the veiled compliment. “The timing of your entry to the guild was unfortunate, however.”

“Yes, that’s true,” said Judith. “Thanks to the Spanish advances, the commissions dried up. And the apprentices, and even some journeymen, were recruited into the militia. Fortunately, I was visiting Grantville, staying with Prudentia Gentileschi, when Haarlem fell and Amsterdam was placed under siege. “

“I have heard of Artemisia Gentileschi….”

“Prudentia is her daughter, and follows in her mother’s footsteps.”

“And were you following in your mother or your father’s footsteps?”

“Neither! I am the daughter of a brewer and cloth maker. I studied with Frans Pieterszoon de Grebber; I was a friend of his daughter Maria.” Judith did not mention that her father had gone bankrupt and that she had supported her family, first as an embroiderer and later as an artist.

“And have you any of your paintings on board?”

“Yes. I hope that in China they will have an air of the exotic, and command higher prices than back home. And if not, then perhaps I can sell them to a homesick Dutchman in Batavia on our return passage.”

“As you know, Miss Leyster, I am a man of some wealth and influence. If you show me your work, and I think it worthy, I can put some commissions your way when we return to Europe.”

“That is most kind of you,” said Judith.

“In fact, why not join me for dinner in my cabin, and bring some of your paintings for me to look at.”

Judith gave him a sharp look. “I am honored, but I am already having dinner with Jim and Martina.”

“No problem, come by after dinner.”

“I… I will think about it.”


“Don’t do it,” said Martina. “He’s a married man and he shouldn’t be inviting a woman your age to his cabin.”

“Even if he were an unmarried man, it would not be good for your reputation,” said Eva Huber. “Besides, I think he’s creepy. I’ve caught him watching you, or me, or even Martina before. And he comes real close when he talks to us.”

“What?” cried Eva’s brother Jacob. “I’ll kill the bastard!”

“Well, he hasn’t asked me to his cabin to show him my rock collection yet,” said Eva. “Anyway, you’re with me most of the time that I’m not with Martina, Judith, Eric or Mike. Which is just as well, since if you killed someone of his stature, even in defense of my honor, you’d probably be executed.”

“Just have a sailor bring him a note to the effect that you were sleepy after dinner and give your regrets,” said Martina.

“Won’t he just ask again tomorrow or the next day? He needs to be ever so politely warned off,” said Jim.

Zacharia Wagaener raised his hand. He was the third member of the geological survey team, with Eva and Jacob.

“It’s not a class,” said Jim. “Just speak up.”

“Why don’t we all go? We say that Judith mentioned that she was invited to show her pictures, and we haven’t seen them, so we tagged along. What can he say? Especially when two of the party are up-timers critical to the mission?”

“Well, Jim’s critical to the mission, I’m just along because I haven’t eaten in a Chinese restaurant in centuries,” quipped Martina. “But I like the idea. He can hardly refuse without being obvious about his intentions in front of us, and once he has seen them, he can’t use them as the excuse for a second invitation.”


Events proceeded pretty much as Zacharias and Martina had predicted. Ambassador Salvius’ eyes had widened when he opened his cabin door in response to Judith’s knock and saw her entourage, but Martina made an artfully ingenuous speech and he had waved them in, each carrying a couple of paintings.

He waited without obvious impatience as the others oohed and aahed over the artwork, and made polite sounds of his own, but he didn’t offer his guests any wine. He was also quite noncommittal when Zacharias daringly mentioned that he, too, was an artist, and would be delighted to display his own illustrations for the Ambassador’s edification at the Ambassador’s convenience.


A few days later, while Judith was topside once again, and hard at work, she was startled to hear the high boatswain bellow, “All hands on deck!” This was quickly followed by, “All passengers, go below now!”

Judith grabbed her sketchbook, and walked gingerly toward the nearest hatch, being careful to have one hand on a railing or other support at all times. As she walked, she looked about, seeking a better understanding of what was happening.

On every mast, hands were grabbing the ratlines and climbing into the shrouds. On deck, gear was being secured, but there was no rush of crewmen down to the broadside cannon on the gun deck. Plainly, then, the threat was from Nature, not Man.