30: The Sea Cat’s Tale

A Black Cat - Fotolia photo.Yes.  This evening I heared what that black cat can do, and my soul was sick with envie.

He calls hisself Nero, though other cats say his master (an old man come from sea) calls him Blackie.  He has not dwelt here long.

View_at_Ponte_dei_Sospiri_in_Venice_K.A.Beine Wikimedia Commons
A Citie Most Apt for Cats

Tail-less Nero may be, but he seems to have a hoard of tales within him.

I hear he speaks much of Fence [Venice], a great citie most apt for cats, though wedded and bedded with water.  We must ever look before we leap.

Nero first set forth as sea cat on a galley.  A ship driven more oft by long oars than by the wind.

This evening he told of Naplie [Naples], whence he took ship for Spain.  The Spanish have an empire on which the sun never sets, and we cats love the sun.

He friended two Spanish gentlemen, Meek-eel [Miguel?] and Rot-reek [Rodrigo?].  Meek-eel had a sickness in one arm, so Nero sat beside him when he ate and hooked meat from his dish, this Meek-eel being slow to fend him off.

Not far along, they was chased by Barbary corsairs who lie in ambush for their prey.  I will set down what he sayt, to the best of my remembrance:

They fell on us most murderous, but we
dealt death to them with sword and well-aimed shot.
I crouched among the ropes, and felt a bolt
strike fire unto my spine.  Then glimpsed my tail,
dissevered, flying this way.  I flew that,
and came down on a Corsair’s gory planks.
First stood aghast, then knew this was a sign
of destiny, from Heaven’s own Queen Cat.
I cried, “Kind sir, have pity on my plight,
a tail-less cat at your great feet doth fall.
I pray you, find my tail and stitch it back
and I’ll bring you good fortune with my thanks.”

To this, my plea and bargain, he replied:
“Your tail is gone for good, I do not doubt it.
Though it was wondrous fine, you’ll live without it,
You’ll win great honour if you join with me.
If not?  You’ll live and die in slavery.”
The men I’d sailed with were took to Algiers,
displayed in captive chains, and sold as slaves.
I served my Corsair well for many a year,
saw pirate ports, wild fights, and reckless raids.
And when my Corsair wearied of the chase,
we turned for Turkey with our fortunes made,
and gifts enough to have ourselves ennobled.

Oh, was’t not passing brave to be the cat
that walked in triumph through Constantinople?

Then Nero ended with a Turkish song, of which I understood not a word.

All marvelled at this tale, for one cat sayt that Nero (or Blackie, as you will) first oped his eyes in Portsmouth, and has never gone farther than Dieppe.

But he can do a mighty line, I give him that.

A galley under oars. This image, and the one below, are from "The Barbary Corsairs" by Stanley Lane-Poole, 1890.
A galley under oars. This image, and the one below, are from “The Barbary Corsairs” by Stanley Lane-Poole, 1890. (Internet Archive)

A Galley under sail, running before the wind

Toutparmoi - Editor's NoteNero may never have gone farther than Dieppe (a French port), but he must have listened to old salts’ stories, including one about being captured by Barbary corsairs and sold as a slave.

He also seems to have heard something of Christopher Marlowe’s hit play Tamburlaine, Part I of which was probably first performed in 1587.

A couple of quick points:

Europeans called the North Coast of Africa, from Egypt to the strait of Gibraltar, the Barbary Coast.  The corsairs operated under the auspices of rulers along the Coast and the Turkish (Ottoman) Empire.  The busy Mediterranean and its coastal towns provided rich pickings, primarily in ships and slaves.

In 1575, well before Nero/Blackie would have been born, the Cervantes brothers (Miguel and Rodrigo) were returning to Spain from Naples when they were captured by corsairs.  As a young man Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) led an extraordinarily adventurous life.  He’s now most famous for Don Quixote and it would be pleasant to think that Nero knew him, but that’s not possible.