The Story of Roger, the English Lad, Who Longed to Sail the Spanish Main
So sang the boys, standing on the little green before the rector's door, just as the Christmas morning sunshine touched the old church tower, hung thick with ivy. And the rector, in his white wig and thick woollen wrapper, came out into the porch to give them his Christmas blessing and kindly wishes in return for their carol.
Yesterday these boys had helped to strew the church floor with rushes, and then they had pulled with a will on the Yule log that Jonas and Giles were hauling in from the woods for the grand Yule blaze at evening.
And they had searched the woods for mistletoe to hang from the broad beam that crossed the ceiling of the sitting-room. But when their sister Alice came in she said, "Hang it in the doorway, where all must pass under it."
You see there were merry Christmases in those days, even if there were no stockings to be hung, nor Christmas-trees to be decked out with candles and gifts.
And after a merry Christmas eve, the boys were up before the Christmas sun, to sing their carol at the rector's door, and then go to morning service in the ivy-covered church before beginning their sports.
Among these boys was Roger Barker, the merchant's son,—a tall, strong lad of twelve years old.
As he sings, with his clear, young voice, of the ships that come sailing in, he is not thinking so much of Bethlehem and Christmas blessings as of the ships that he watches, day after day, as they sail in or out of Plymouth harbor, bound now to Spain, or Africa, or again to the faraway American shores. For all this boy's heart is upon the sea, and even the words of his Christmas carol have carried him far away from church and rector and schoolmates, to some wild, adventurous voyage, far, far away westward.
He is a merchant's son. His father's ships have brought velvets, silks, and cloth of gold from the Levant, perfumes and spices from the East Indies, and furs from Russia; and it was only last week that the little bark Dainty arrived from South America, that wonderful new world, with a cargo of sugar, tobacco, and batatas (potatoes) for planting in the spring; for Sir Walter Raleigh has wisely said that this goodly vegetable, as sweet as a chestnut, and nourishing withal, may grow in English and Irish soil as well as in the new world.
Do you realize that among all the six boys whose stories we have heard, not one has ever heard of America. Roger is the first; no marvel that it is a wonderland to him.
Each morning he takes his satchel of books and his slate, and goes to school; but he longs to change his scholar's cap and gown for a sailor's jacket and loose trousers, and be off to discover new worlds, to fight the Spaniards, and to bring home pearls and gold and honors.
Would you like to go with this unwilling scholar and take a peep into his school? See how the boys flock in and take their seats on the long wooden benches, much hacked and worn, but good enough, for boys in those days were not used to comfort and ease, either in school or at home.
See that row of little fellows with their horn books, studying their reading lessons.
I wish the little children whom I see to-day learning to read from primers made attractive by pretty pictures could see a horn book, the primer from which Roger had learned to read, and which his little brother is studying now.
As you can't see one, I must try to describe it for you. It
was a single printed leaf, with the alphabet in large and
small letters, a few columns of monosyllables, and, below,
the Lord's Prayer. This leaf, lest it should be torn, was
set in a little wooden frame, and it was covered with a thin
It had a handle in which was a hole for a string, that it might hang from the belt or round the neck.
At the beginning of the alphabet was a cross; from which the children came to call their alphabets, and indeed the horn book itself, the "Christ Cross Row," or "Criss Cross Row." So these little fellows, if you ask them what they are doing, will probably tell you that they are learning their "Criss Cross Row."
Upon the master's desk stands the hour-glass by which the lesson hours are to be regulated, and at the desk sits the master, with cane ready to punish the slightest fault or failure with a blow; for most boys had their lessons flogged into them, and took this mode of learning as a matter of course.
Here Roger studies grammar and reading and writing, and Latin always and before all other studies, as most needed for a well-taught man, and the time has come, at last, when a merchant's son may have learning as well as a gentleman's son.
For books he has, first, "A grammar set forth by King Henrie eighth, of noble memory, and continued in the time of Edward sixth."
For her gracious majesty the queen has proclaimed that "this grammar, and none other, shall be taught by every school-master."
Then he has already begun to read in Latin verse the noble deeds of Queen Elizabeth, a school book from which he is to learn, not only Latin but also loyalty, that first and the greatest lesson for every Englishman.
Two years ago, having finished the horn book, he had slowly and toilsomely read through "The Seven Wise Masters," and having by that means learned to read any simple story in English, he has made the most of the few storybooks that have come in his way.
He can tell you the tales of King Arthur and his knights; and "Sir Bevis of Southampton," "Adam Bel, Clym o' the Clough, and William of Cloudsley," are as familiar to him as are the stories of Robin Hood; for all these merry tales he has heard at the May-day revels ever since he was old enough to dance round the May-pole.
His arithmetic he will have to learn by hard experience; and his geography he will pick up from every sailor that comes into port.
Roger does not greatly delight in the study of Latin. He says to himself, though he does not dare to say it to his father, "Sir Francis Drake never studied Latin, and he is the greatest man in all England. Will studying Latin teach me to sail round the world as he has done?"
Roger's elder brother, John, has himself sailed round the world with Drake, and is even now gone on another voyage to the Spanish main with his adored captain; and the one thought and hope of the younger brother is to do likewise. He would far rather linger about the wharves and watch the shipping, than join in any sport. For he loves all craft that sail the seas, and whether it be a wine-brig from Bordeaux, a hoy from the Scheldt, or merely a Plymouth smack fishing the Channel for herring, he watches the sails out of sight, and his fancy follows them far beyond the horizon.
But better than Iceland fishing fleet, or wine-brig, or Flushinger, is the sight of a ship fitted out by some gallant gentlemen for a venture to the New World, or a brush with the Spaniards on the seas which they have proudly christened "the Spanish Main." But why Spanish.
We may well say, as did the French king when he heard their boastful claim, "I should like to see father Adam's will, before I will believe that the sea belongs to the Spaniards."
When Roger was a little lad, eight years old, he saw the Golden Hind come into port. The Golden Hind, hardly bigger than many a pleasure yacht that you have seen, which, under Drake's bold command, had felt its way through the Straits across the wide Pacific to the East Indies, and home by way of Cape of Good Hope, bringing gold-dust, silver, pearls, emeralds, and diamonds taken from his prize, the great Spanish galleon that sailed once a year from Lima to Cadiz.
And he had listened with wonder and admiration to his brother's tales of Indians and tropical fruits, spices, and gold and pearls; and, always and everywhere, mixed in with every story, the cruelties of the Spaniards, who were claiming for themselves seas, continents, and islands, and conquering the helpless natives with severity past telling.
And Spain has even insolently forbidden Englishmen to cross the Atlantic Ocean, for was not the New World discovered by Columbus and taken possession of for the King of Spain?
Oh! how this boy's heart leaps up when he thinks of it; for he has been taught, as you all well know, that the sea is a free roadway for all the nations of the earth.
Roger has been born in a wonderful time. I almost wish I could have lived in it myself; for there is his old grandfather sitting in the great oak chair in the chimney corner, who can tell him truly that, when he was a boy, no sailors had dared sail far out of sight of land, lest they should come to the edge of the world and fall over, "For who then believed there was anything but pilchards to be found west of the Land's End?" said the old man.
And now it seemed as if the old world itself was longing to move westward to reach the new, so many were the gallant captains and the brave sailors who faced dangers in unknown seas and among unknown savages; and liked nothing better than what they called "a brush with the Spaniards," and a chance to fall in with the plate (gold and silver) fleet on its way from South America to Spain.
So you see the boy's mind must needs be full of the sea and the Spaniards, and you do not wonder that I have called him, in the title of this chapter, "the boy who longed to sail the Spanish Main."
But you ought to know something more of him besides this great longing, which, I promise you, will one day be gratified. So I will tell you some of the common facts of his daily life, what he wears, and eats and drinks, and how he lives.
How odd his cloth stockings would look to you, and his scholar's cap and gown, compared to your own trim suits; but knitted or woven stockings were so uncommon in those days that the queen herself had just received a present of her first pair, and she was so pleased with them that she resolved for the future to wear no more cloth stockings.
He sees the fine gentlemen in the streets, with their velvet hats and feathers fastened with clasps of gold and jewels, the long, curling lovelock tied with ribbon, and the rose behind the ear, the trunk hose, velvet tunic with slashed sleeves and lace ruffles, and swords by their sides.
And every day, on his way to school, he passes the barber's shop of Walter, the lovelocker, and that of Nicholas the tailor at the sign of the Needle, and he sees the shopmen, with goods displayed, crying to the passers-by, "What do ye lack?"
He meets the farmers' sons in their russet clothes, and knows well that the law allows them to wear no other; and that, if a farmer or tradesman should cover his head with a velvet cap, the law would quickly take it off him.
When his father has occasion to go out of an evening, he wears, if the streets are muddy, his pattens, made of ash-wood rimmed with iron, and a servant lad runs before him with a lantern, for the streets are neither paved nor lighted, nor over-safe from robbers.
At his father's table there are pewter plates instead of the wooden ones which his grandfather used, and the pretty wooden bowls of bird's eye maple are rimmed with silver, but there are no forks to eat with, "which is to be regretted," says a foreigner, writing of those days in England, "since all men's fingers are not equally clean."
On the table we see good roast beef and mutton and venison, but a potato is a rare luxury. Roger has tasted it but once in his life.
There is plenty of milk, but neither tea nor coffee, for, as yet, these drinks have never been heard of in England, and great cans of ale are on the table at breakfast, dinner, and supper,—supper, not tea, of course, for no one would know what you meant if you should invite him to tea.
His father's house has its second story projecting over the street, thus making the upper rooms larger and lighter than the lower ones.
In the upper front room stands a great chest shaped like a toy Noah's ark. It is made of oak wood, and is already dark with age, for it has belonged to his father's father, and perhaps to ancestors still more remote. It is the family treasure-chest, and holds many a goodly cloth, many a jewel and silver cup, rich with Spanish workmanship. And there are Spanish dollars in it too, for Spain supplies the whole trading world with current coin.
If our boy would know what time it is, he runs out to the old sun-dial that stands on the terrace, and throws its shadow upon a circle marked in clock-fashion. He has indeed heard of watches, and seen one at a distance, in the hands of a gentleman of the court, who stopped the other day at the Blue Lion tavern, to rest himself and his horses after his hard ride from London.
The Blue Lion itself would be a curiosity to you and me, with its great, swinging sign-board, whereon is painted a wondrous blue lion, such as no man has ever seen alive, and its bustling landlord brewing a tankard of sack for his noble guest.
Roger takes occasion to pass the Blue Lion as often as he can on his way to and from school, for many is the gallant gentleman, or the sturdy sea-captain that may be seen sitting in its bay-window, and talking of bold adventures or Spanish sea-fight, or of trade with Cathay. Search your whole map over and you will not find the name Cathay; for what was then called Cathay is now called China.
Telling you to search your maps reminds me of the maps that Roger has seen. Never a map of the whole world,—those eastern and western hemispheres so familiar to you,—and only once, a strange sort of map of Africa, which a ship-master was exhibiting at the Blue Lion, to some of his friends.
It was a copy of a curious chart made by a seaman who had been pilot for brave Christopher Columbus, and on it he had drawn castles and ships, strange men and beasts, and seacoasts and rivers so oddly intermixed, that one needs the carefully written name, Africa, in the corner, to help imagine the possible country it is intended to represent.
But to Roger it was a land of wonders, and he believed in every castle and gold-clad emperor there. From this map, and from a great white horn (perhaps not unlike the horn that Salvation Yeo gave to Amyas Leigh) on which were traced the voyages to the Indies, East and West, Roger had received all his map lessons, and we must not wonder if he held some rather curious notions of the world and its countries and people. He believes in mermaids and dragons; and he knows an old sailor, Simon Johnson, who wears in his bosom an agate stone, by which he keeps himself safe from the bite of the most deadly serpent. And this same Simon Johnson was with Sebastian Cabot, up the river La Plata, where serpents most venomous are plenty, and his agate must have saved him, for there he sits with his pot of ale on the bench outside the door of the Blue Lion, and tells to the boys all sorts of wondrous stories.
If you doubt about the dragons, and the rooms full of gold and silver, Roger will answer you, "But, Simon Johnson has seen them."
Just now there was some talk among his playmates about mermaids, and Roger promptly settled all doubts by saying, "There are mermaids, for Simon Johnson has seen one," and he led the way to the old man's seat in the sunny door-way, that he might have his statement proved true.
"Yes, I seed mun with my own eyes," said old Simon. "It was when I was a sailing the South Seas. Her yellow hair floated abroad over the water, and her head bobbed up and down as if a beckoning of us. And the Spanish prisoner we had on board, he crossed hisself and called upon the saints to save him; but the rest of us just kept our eyes on mun, until she sunk away out of sight, with naught but her yellow hair a beckoning and a beckoning still to the last."
The boys listened in wonder, and believed every word of old Simon's story; and I think the old man himself believed it too.
One of Roger's gayest holidays is May Day.
I dare say you children go a Maying yourselves; but in these old days in England, not only the children, but also their fathers and mothers, were up at early dawn on May Day, to deck the house door-way with blossoming hawthorn, and trim the May-pole with garlands of flowers; for there were May-poles on the greens of all villages and towns, and even in the squares of London itself.
And among the young men there had been a rivalry for months as to who was the best archer, and should represent Robin Hood in the May games. For Robin Hood was king of the May, and with him came Maid Marian, and Little John and Friar Tuck; and there were morris dancers, with tinkling bells at knee and elbow; and there was the prancing hobby-horse, and the bellowing dragon, to remind the English boys of the famous old story of St. George and the dragon, and teach them the meaning of the grand old battle-cry, "St. George for merrie England!" and merrie England indeed it was in those days.
At the Blue Lion, Roger sees one day a sight that delights while it terrifies him; the great fire-breathing captain, who has sailed to the other side of the world, and, as the boys firmly believe, has seen headless men and flying dragons. You would laugh at him and say, "Fire-breathing, indeed! It is only a man smoking a cigar!"
But the world is full of wonders for this boy; even a newspaper, so common a sight to us all, is a wonder to him, for it is but just now that the English Mercury, filled with news many weeks old, of Spaniards, and trading voyages, and fights upon land or sea, is published once or twice a week, and sent by foot or horsemen to the principal cities of the kingdom.
When he goes with his companions for a long ramble out on the broad fields and downs, they step aside with care if they chance upon those mushroom rings which the pixies (as they call the fairies) have made for their midnight dances. And if you or I should try to tell him that there are really no pixies or fairies, he would not believe us. He knows better than that, and here he can show us the dancing rings to prove the truth.
He believes, too, that if he could be so fortunate as to gather fern-seed on St. John's Eve,—the only time in the whole year, according to fairy lore, when the fern produces seed,—he could walk invisible among his companions.
But now I must tell you how Roger went with his father to London, riding behind the servant on horseback, and spending two or three nights at the inns in Exeter, Taunton, and other fine old towns by the way.
"The lad may as well begin to learn what the world is like," said his father, "and there is no school better than experience."
At last, after nightfall of the sixth day, they reached London, and found themselves on paved streets, with here and there a lantern to make darkness visible.
They put up at a famous inn, called the "Bel Savage," and were just in time to witness one of those pageants of which Queen Elizabeth and her people were so fond. For the Queen was coming down the river from Westminster in her barge, and was to be received by a procession of merchants and tradespeople.
Across the street, near the inn, an arch had been erected, surmounted by a model of a ship under full sail, with a motto, "The Commerce of England. Her merchants serve and honor their queen."
How proud Roger was to stand beside his father and pull off his cap and shout, when the cry, "The Queen, the Queen!" sounded down the street; and the stately lady, with enormous ruff and jewelled head-dress, sitting in a carriage drawn by white horses, paused under the archway and let the procession pass slowly before her, while a little lad, no bigger than Roger himself, decked with flags and rare devices to suggest foreign lands, dropped on one knee and craved permission to introduce to her Majesty the characters as they passed.
The permission being graciously granted, first came her Majesty's imports from Cathay, spread open to view by a curiously grotesque Chinaman, and followed by Manila, with sugar and spices, in the person of a real little East Indian boy, page to the Countess of Essex, brought home by Master Cavendish when he sailed up the Thames with the famous silken sails displayed. Then came fruits and damasks and rich rugs from the Levant, and furs from Russia, and the woollens of the Flemish weavers, and their lovely laces too. But the crowning wonder of all was the American Indian, with beaver skins, and ores, supposed to be silver and gold; and the inscription "Virginia to the Virgin Queen;" for Raleigh had received his grant of land in the new world, and named it in honor of his sovereign.
I must not tell you more, for already you have heard enough to make you realize how different is Roger's life from your own; and you can read, in books of history, of voyages to the New World, and sea-fights with the Spaniards, which will tell you, better than I can, how, before many years, the boy realized his dreams and satisfied his longings, and grew up to be one of those bold, adventurous Englishmen who helped to make the New World what it is.
And so we will leave Roger, and pass on to the sadder experiences of Ezekiel Fuller, the Puritan boy.