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This is the life story of Walter Crofter, an English commoner who ran from home at the age of 11. After two years living on the street, he ended up on a Merchant Mariners boat in the service of the Crown.
On his first voyage, he rescued a girl from pirates. A very important girl, who stole his heart before she was returned to her home.
This is the story of his life. What adventures he had at sea; what took him off the waters, and what happened to him as he lived his life and stayed true to his character.
“I, Walter Crofter, being of sound mind….” Bah, this is garbage! I tossed my quill on the parchment sitting in front of me. People may question my sanity, but they should hear the whole story before judging me. I’m sitting here, now, at the age of 67, trying to write this down and figure out how to tell everything. I don’t know if I’ll ever get it right, though. Too many secrets to go around. However, this is my last chance to offer the truth before I die. The doctors say it’s malaria, yet I’ll be fine. Perhaps. But if the malaria doesn’t kill me, my guilt indeed will. Maybe if people know the facts surrounding my life, everyone will have a better understanding.
I dipped the tip in the inkwell again, and wrote:
I was born September 2, 1588, and named Walter. I didn’t belong in this Crofter family, who were storekeepers in London and not farmers as our surname might indicate to those who study this sort of thing. My parents were courteous and even obsequious to our patrons. Yet they received little or no respect. The ladies came to us to buy their groceries or the fabric for their dresses, but as seemly as they comported themselves, and some even called my father ‘friend,’ it was not out of regard for him. I was forced to run. Well, “forced” might put too harsh a point on it, like that of a sword, but others can judge for themselves.
By the time I reached the age of 12, I’d found another family that was more “me”. They weren’t rich, but they were comfortable. The parents had several children, including a girl my age who was named Anna. Within two years, we had come to know each other quite well, and were getting to know each other even better. Her father caught us getting too close to knowing each other better yet, and showed up at my parents’ house with a musket in his hand, telling them if I ever came near his daughter again, he’d use it on me–and then on them.
I paused to dip the pen and wipe my brow. Even though I was wearing a light cotton shirt, it was bloody hot in early August in Cadaques. My wife, Maria, entered the room and looked at my perspiring face and what I had just written. Between fits of laughter, she smiled at me with wide lips and said, “You can’t possibly write this. You’re not the only boy a doting father ever had to chase away. Nobody cares about this sort of thing.”
“It will at least give a pulse to this writing,” I replied. “It’s too boring to say that I left because I was mismatched with my own family, so much so that I was positive someone had switched me at birth. Or that I thought I was ready for more in life than what I could find at home. Nobody would read that, not even me.”
“I agree, so tell the story that really means something. All of it.” She sighed softly and placed the parchment she had been reading on the desk in front of me and kissed my cheek. The gleam in her eyes shed 20 years off her age and reminded me of a much gentler time. God, how much I love her.
I said, “Before I met you, I spent my life like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole. I’m just trying to make my story more interesting.”
“I’ve heard the accounts of your life before you met me. Or I should say found me. It was anything but boring. So, if you insist on including in the story lines like those you just wrote, make sure they’re the only ones. If you don’t, I’ll consider adding my own material.” She winked. “You know I’ve had good sources.”
She turned and walked away, laughing loudly as I called after her, “Yes, dear.”
I dipped the quill and put it to parchment again.
In my earliest days, I remember my father, Geoff, being a bit forceful with other people. I also recall my brother Gerald, nearly five years my senior, and myself being happy. Or at least as contented as two boys could be who were growing up in the late 1500s in England, and working every day since their seventh birthdays. It was a time when boys were earning coin as soon as they could lift or carry things. The money could never be for themselves, however, but for the parents to help pay the bills.
Father lived as a crofter should. He was an upright man and sold vegetables off a cart like his grandfather did, and he also dabbled in selling fine fabric for the ladies of status.
One afternoon, when I was eight years old, my brother came home and got into a heated debate with my father about something. When I ran to see what was the matter, they hushed around me, so I never got the full gist of the argument. But whatever it was about, it was serious, and the bickering continued behind my back for five straight days. When I awoke on the morning of the sixth day, Gerald was no longer at home. And he never came back.
Soon afterwards, my father lost enthusiasm for his business and became generally passive. I assumed this was because of Gerald’s leaving, and only on occasion would I see flashes of my dad’s former self.
At the start of my tenth year, our family moved closer to London. We rented the bottom floor of a three-story building in which several families lived in the upper floors. My father said we relocated because he needed to be closer to more business opportunities. But my mom didn’t believe he’d made the right decision, since he was now selling food out of a cart and not inside a storefront. One night, she greeted him at the door when he came home. She was wearing a frown and a dress that had seen better days.
“Did you bring in any decent money?” she asked him before he had time to take off his coat.
“I told you, it will take some time. It’s not easy to make good money these days.”
“Especially when you let the ladies walk all over you.”
“I know, I know. But what am I to do when they aren’t running up to me to buy what I’m selling?”
“You at least bring home some food for us?” My father had carried in a bag under his arm.
“It’s not much, a few carrots and some celery.” He handed her the bag.
“What about meat?”
“We’re not ready for meat yet.”
“That’s true enough,” my mother said. “But you should at least try to feed your family. Walter’s growing, and so are our other children.”
“Leave me be, woman. I’m doing the best I can for now.” He sat in his chair, leaned his head against the wall, and fell asleep.
That same debate played out between my parents for the next two years. Except for the summer months, when food was plentiful; then the arguments subsided. But for the rest of the year, especially during the winter, the same discussions about money continued on a daily basis, and they were often quite heated. I lost two younger siblings during those two years. One during my tenth winter and the other during my eleventh winter. Neither of the children was older than six months. I always suspected hunger as the primary cause of their deaths.
Just before my twelfth birthday, my father started taking me with him when he went to work. My closest living sibling was nearly six and not feeling well most of the time, and the family needed the money I could bring in by helping my father, who was bland and wishy-washy, particularly when selling fabrics. I had no idea what he was like before, but in my mind his lethargy explained why our family was barely making ends meet. Our lives had become much harder since Gerald left, and part of me blamed him. I’m going to thrash him if I ever see him again and teach him a lesson about family responsibility.
It took me less than a week to realize that the people my father was dealing with, as with those in Bristol, had no respect for him. They regularly talked down to him. Rather than asking the price, they regularly paid what they wanted to pay. And he took it without a quibble. And when he tried to curry favor, he would never get it. His customers looked upon him as a whipping board, at least that’s how it seemed to me.
I remember when we got home in the dark after a long day of work in late November, and my mother started in on Dad.
“Well? Have you got the money for me to buy food tomorrow?”
“A little. Here.” He fished a guinea from his pocket.
“A guinea? That’s it? That won’t feed us for a day. You’ve got to start working harder. With what you earn and what I bring in sewing clothes, we can barely pay the rent, and there is nothing left over to heat this place. And it’s going to get colder, Geoff.”
“I know, Mildred, I know. I’m trying as hard as I can.”
“You haven’t worked hard since Sir Walter Raleigh left favor. You can’t wait for him forever.”
“He’ll get favor back. And when he does, I’ll be right there helping him. You’ll see, we’ll be fine again.”
She groaned. I was aware that this was not the first time my mother had heard this from my father. It’s great talk from a man trying to get ahead. But after several years of the same song, it loses its credibility. She had enjoyed respectability in the early days when my father grabbed the coattails of the then revered Sir Walter Raleigh, and it was hard not having this luxury now. She hadn’t planned to be satisfied with being a shopkeeper’s wife, and she wasn’t even that, at present. She changed the subject, not her tone.
“I overheard the ladies gossiping on the street today. They were talking about seeing Gerald’s likeness on a ‘Wanted’ poster. A ‘Wanted’ poster, Geoff. There’s a warrant out for our son’s arrest. What are we going to do? What can we do?”
My father stared at the wall. “Nothing. He’s an adult. He’ll have to work it out for himself.”
I watched quietly as my mother cried herself to sleep, her head on my father’s shoulder. No matter how bad things got, they loved each other and wanted their lives to be better, the way I was often told they were before my birth. Maybe this is why I wanted to get away from them as soon as I could.
I didn’t usually watch my parents fall asleep. But, that night I did. And, after they were sound asleep, I left. I had no plans. I didn’t know where I was going. I just left in middle of what was a dark, chilly night.
I could hear the dogs barking around me as I scurried along the roadside. It felt as if they were yelping at me and coming towards me. I began running, faster than I’d ever sprinted in my life, my speed assisted by my sense of fear. Every time I heard a dog, or an owl, or any other animal, or even my own heavy breathing, my pace increased until I was exhausted and had to stop. This continued throughout the night until the sky started to lighten and I found a grove of overhanging bushes and crawled inside for some sleep.
I scavenged for food during the day and swiped a few pieces of fruit from merchants along the way. This became my means of subsistence. I left a coin when I could, as I’d pick up an occasional odd job, but I was always out of money. I also tried begging, and while I did survive on the street, I found life difficult. Yet for nearly two years I stayed with this vagabond existence before deciding to make my way to the sea. Too bad my internal compass wasn’t any good. Turns out I was moving more to the west than to the south. But before long I was on the shores of Bristol. And my life changed forever.