Linkin the Law Cat had newes from London. His master had heard that a gentleman writ to Lord Purrlie from Fence [Venice] where many say that Siffrans [Sir Francis Drake], having offended the Queen, goes no more to sea.
This frees the King of Spain from keeping his war ships close to his treasure ships. He can come against us. Some say he’s made a pact with the Scots. Others say his soldiers have been landed in Ireland.
“Gossips’ talk,” sayt Linkin. “Do not believe it.”
Item: A King is a Man-Queen. I knew that, but some arrkst.
Many also arrkst if the Spanish eat cats.
Nero gave out a tale to cheer us. He told it plain, no versifying. I will set it down as best I can.
“In Constantinople I friended an English merchant, and sailed with him to London. Our ship came safe past the Barbary Coast, for we had fair winds and could outrun the corsairs’ galleys.
“In London I joined a crew that set sail for the Spanish Main in hopes of trade.”
“The Spanish King has forbid trade with us,” sayt Linkin the Know-All.
“True,” sayt Nero. “But there’s trade and there’s trade, if you take my meaning. We flew French colours, so none should think us pirates. There was a Guinea man with us, black and handsome like me, so I friended him.
“First we came upon a Spanish merchant ship, and made haste to greet her. When we was within pistol shot (which at sea is best for cannon) we hoist our proper colours and called: England and Saint George! Strike sail or we’ll sink you.
“They called: Lads, we be but poor mariners like yourselves. We brought household stuff and tools here from Spain, and carry home nowt but wood and hides. If you rob us, our kits will go hungry. But the treasure fleet is loading now, and will soon set sail. Make haste, and you might take a straggler.
“All know the Spanish are tricksie. They seek to deceive honest folk, and send us in pursuit of shadows. So when a Spanish cat showed his ugly face I arrkst if all were true. He swore it was.
“We accepted a cask or two of wine from them. The Guinea man (all called him Frank) and I took none of it, because the taste misliked us, but we drank a little ale. All were merry.
“Soon we fell in with not one treasure ship but ten, bound for Seville. ’Twas then that Frank cried: Hell!
“The cross of Saint George was still a-flutter. They would know we was not French.
“We ran to change our colours, but Spanish ships gave fire. They hurt our mainmast, then we was holed, next we was ablaze.
“Our men threw anything that could float into the water, and leapt in to cling it.
“I balanced on the rail. My friends thought I was afeared to jump, and called to me. Sailors believe that if they lose their cats to the sea, we’ll make waves against them.”
“By lashing our tails,” sayt Nero.
“Not you, then,” called another.
“True,” answered Nero. “For ’twas then my tail caught fire. I leapt into the sea to dowse the flames before I was consumed entire.”
A screech went up. I think Nero loses his tail in every tale he tells.
He sayt, “ The Spanish were coming with a boat. Most of our men had no choice but to wait for them. They couldn’t swim. They planned to say they was poor mariners and now they’d lost their ship their kits would starve.
“Frank and another had hold of a plank. They swore they’d be damned before they was took as pirates and chained to the oars of a Spanish galley. Or worse. So I swam to them.
“We made for the shore of Darien [Panama]. I rode the plank while they kicked mightily. Frank sayt he had friends there who would aid us. Enemies to Spain, who kept theirselves well hid.
“I guessed we would have a long walk to find them, and no food. Sailors may hate to lose cats to the sea, but when they’ve no vittles they’ll eat us. And my tail was fresh roasted!”
Then Nero sayt he would conclude his tale when next we met at the Cats’ Field.
“How is it,” I arrkst “that your Guinea friend had an English name?” For I believed Nero had planned to tell this tale in verse. Frank rhymes with plank.
Nero told me Frank had courted a London girl. He came home from a voyage and saw she’d waxed fat with a kit in her belly, so they ran to get the piece of paper that says you can wed. As men and women must, else they are shamed.
When he gave his Guinea name, the clerk arrkst, “How do I write that?” And then, “Have you been baptised? What name was given you then?”
And the Guinea man, fearing that if he was not baptised he could not marry, cried, “Damn me, I been so long at sea in the service of the Queen’s Majestie I’ve clean forgot.”
The clerk, hearing him swear like a true Christian, was assuaged and writ Frank Mariner. An excellent name.
Nero has an answer for everything.
The letter from “Fence” was sent to Lord Burghley in early September 1587, but (depending on the weather) it would have taken a while to get to England, and a little longer before Linkin’s lawyer master sent the latest gossip to his mother. So Gib probably wrote this late October.
The Spanish Main was the stretch of coast bordering the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish treasure fleet put in twice a year, primarily to Nombre de Dios on the Isthmus of Darien to pick up silver, gold, jewels and less glamorous items from Peru (including modern Bolivia). No Panama Canal back then, so getting the treasure cross-country by mule trains from Panama city for shipping to Spain was slow work. And a temptation to pirates.
Nero has obviously heard of the Cimarrones, whom the English called Maroons. (Frank’s “friends…who would aid us.”) They were African slaves who’d escaped from the coastal townships, set up their own settlements inland, and harassed the Spanish whenever possible. That included playing the English off against them by helping with raids on the mule trains.