I saw behind me those who had gone, and ere me those who are to come. I
looked back and saw my father and his father and all our fathers. And their
eyes were my eyes. Then I was not afraid, for I was in a long line that had no
beginning and no end. And the hand of his father grasped my father’s hand
and his hand was in mine, and my unborn son took my right hand and all, up
and down the line that stretched from Time That Was to Time That Is and Is
Not Yet, raised their hands to show the link. And we found that we were one.
How Green Was My Valley
My Papa, a wealthy sea captain, allowed himself three mistresses. He loved Mama, the mistress of his house; his ship, his mistress at sea; and if one were to believe the impolite rumors of which I could claim no direct knowledge, any mistress found in the bawdy houses that lined the coast from England to Scotland. Although his namesake and oldest son, I found little opportunity for us to share our lives.
I do not lay him blame—a man of the sea, he sailed from Devon Province to Scottish ports of call and left to Mama the care of myself and four other brothers and sisters. At seventeen, I yearned to be like him—a dashing Englishman, full of good humor, generous, a teller of irreverent stories.
On a rare hot afternoon a month ago, he, Mama, and I sat in the parlor sipping tea when a story pricked his fancy.
“Billy Boy, did you hear about the fool who swived the rector’s mistress?”
“Nay, Papa, tell me.”
“He started a holy war of—”
“Captain, dear.” Mama clicked her teeth and raised her hands in dismay. “Blasphemy, it is! Those stories aren’t for William’s ears. I thank you t’keep them to yourself.”
Contrary to my upbringing, which was strongly laced with Mama’s pious views, I thought myself a young man ready for the world. I begged to differ with Mama, but her stern glare made no allowance for views not her own.
Not so Papa. He knew I was a Chaucer aficionado, wise to the pursuits of men, and not beyond reading any dirty book I could find that told about babies, boys and girls playing with each other, and of late, adult pleasures. Of the latter, I mined a lode from Papa’s library of classical plays and tragic comedies.
To Mama’s chagrin, he laughed, “Aye” to her and then whispered to me. “Can’t take life too seriously, Billy Boy. Got more stories for you later. Good ones.”
I cringed. He hadn’t been home frequently enough to get in the habit of calling me by my grown name, but he said Billy Boy with such affection that I didn’t mind.
Mama took offense at many things, but particularly the sundry rumors of Captain William Sherewell voiced by the Rector and wags of questionable merit. He was a Sherewell—perhaps accurately described by his detractors as a renegade—from the elitist merchant Sherewells of Plymouth.
When rumors circulated in certain circles that Papa had contracted a social disease which often besets frequenters to residents of the oldest established profession, I was devastated. He wrote Mama that he thought his troubles were from the lack of proper food on the ship, and perhaps consumption had been the outcome. Within months he perished, presumably, Mama was told, at sea where he’d requested burial.
What I didn’t know was that my life would begin on the third day after Papa’s memorial service at St. Georges Church when Solicitor Durrand, assigned by the court, arrived wearing a black, crumpled frock coat, carrying a case full of papers, and spectacles dangling from his upper coat pocket.
My brothers and I were in Papa’s study next to the parlor when we heard Mama beg the solicitor to seat himself. She asked, “Would you care for tea?”
We hovered outside the door to listen, and seeing us, Mama invited us in.
“Solicitor Durrand, may I present my sons, William, Adam, and Dewance. Boys, the solicitor is about to read your Papa’s will. God rest his soul.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, her thin lips trembling.
Solicitor Durrand spoke with a high-pitched voice, his dull white cravat wobbling up and down in concert with his shrill vocal chords.
“Madam Sherewell,” he squeaked, “my condolences at the demise of your late husband. Pleases me t’say he left you well endowed. Indeed, you are fortunate. A wealthy man he was. You and your children shall have no worries.”
The solicitor balanced his spectacles precisely on his bony nose which dripped evidence of an early summer cold or perhaps an allergy to sea air. He fetched a handkerchief, blew his nose loudly, and refolded it before placing it back in his pocket. He straightened his thin shoulders, which emphasized protruding bones not unlike the silhouette of his nose. He turned his attention to his carrying case where he dug hopelessly among its papers. After an embarrassing pause, he finally produced a blue-backed document.
He announced triumphantly, “Aha. I have his will from which I shall read his wishes.”
Mama rang a silver bell to remind the butler to serve tea and settled herself in a brocaded satin settee, fanned her porcelain-smooth face with a white lace handkerchief, and dabbed the perspiration coming from under her tightly curled periwig. Her heavy black moiré dress, with matching buttons and black knitted shawl, fitted the occasion for a grieving widow receiving such a distinguished caller.
I, assuming the role of oldest son, stood behind Mama, steadying her with my hand on her shoulder. The solicitor proceeded with the usual provisions and enumerated Papa’s holdings from an attached inventory. Upon reaching eighteen, my brothers and I would receive certain sums and share equally Papa’s land. He bequeathed Mama her dower, and my brothers and I were charged with the care of my two sisters until they married.
After retrieving from the floor a page he dropped, the solicitor paused and shifted through several pages before deciding on the one he had missed. He cleared his throat and finished the provisions distributing Papa’s artifacts, books, and possessions.
All was as expected until Durrand read, “And to my oldest son, William Adam Sherewell, I leave my ship, the Emperor’s Dictum.”
A ship? Papa’s ship? What would I do with a ship? I expected it and his business to be sold to his brothers in Plymouth, not given to me. I had found no fault with my share of his fortune—horses, land, and particularly his library.
In my memory, papa never mentioned in my presence his ship’s name or much about his travels. When I asked, he’d change the subject and tell another story. But I did remember when I was twelve, there occurred a period of time when I intensely wanted to be a seaman like Papa. Each night found me obsessed with dreams of mastering a full-sail, majestic vessel, flying the Kings colors. I saw myself in captain’s splendor peering at the high seas through my eyeglass and issuing sharp commands to scrambling seamen on the yardarms. I reveled when they responded, Aye, Captain.
When Mama caught me playing sailor games with Adam, she scolded harshly. “Stop! I forbid you to give Adam such ideas. I demand you stop immediately. You’ll see my whip if I catch you again.”
She made it plain she’d tolerate no part of any of her sons becoming seamen. As I grew older, I was increasingly trapped within Mama’s plans and had long since dismissed the idea of becoming a seaman. To please her, I’d mastered literature and letters, graduated cum laude from the Ermington school, and was on my way to bringing her wishes to fruition teaching at a parish elementary school.
I heard again the Solicitor’s unbelievable pronouncement. William Adam Sherewell . . . the Emperor’s Dictum. I didn’t know what to say. Mama eyes turned bitter, her words exploded.
“William, not in my lifetime will you be a sea captain. You can put that notion right out of your head. Bad enough your Papa left us alone for months at a time, but look what happened to him? He’s dead, gone forever, and the sea took him from us. No, William, never.”
As soon as the Solicitor departed on his way, I retreated to my room. Mama’s demands rubbed me raw. She didn’t ask what I wanted. She didn’t even consider if Papa’s decision had merit. Laying on my bed staring at the ceiling, I tried to wrestle in my mind the new implications a ship would bring. Clearly Papa wanted me to have his ship even though he never taught me seamanship nor given me hope that I might follow in his footsteps.
I pushed my pillow away and sat at the edge of my bed. New thoughts raced through my mind. A ship of my own where I could go wherever I wanted, when I wanted? A wave of freedom flooded me as if Papa knew my future better than I and provided me an escape to a new life. Mama’s orders not withstanding, I reasoned it wouldn’t hurt to at least see the Emperor’s Dictum. I vowed to go to the docks the next morning to find my ship.