Tio Rodrigo

Extract Two

'Tio Rodrigo was in the parlour when Catalina returned to the house. He always stayed with his sister’s family over the duration of the harsh winter months, when it was too rough to sail with any safety, and most of his fellow seamen went home to their families. Tio Rodrigo had never had a family, and though he played the charmer to Catalina’s friends, had never seemed to desire a wife.

“Ah, ‘tis my favourite sobrina!” he cried as Catalina entered the room. “And where has she been, I wonder?”

“Just speaking to the gardener,” said Catalina, stooping down to warm her hands at the glowing hearth. “He says he thinks the weather will turn this week, and October will be a long month.”

“I should think it’s about time the weather turned!” thus Tio Rodrigo. “I have been back a whole week, and I swear I’m quite bored of sunshine. At least if the wind blows I shall have an excuse to be idle indoors. A docked ship in sailing weather is not a sight that calms my blood.”

“Nothing calms your blood, tio,” said Catalina. “Except perhaps Mama. You’re going to have to shave again today.”

“Oh, don’t remind me, sobrinita. Why a man’s facial hair cannot be merely his own business, I do not know.”

“Mama doesn’t want to be associated with any man with a spade beard, when we go to church.”

“And why not, I should like to know?”

Catalina chuckled. “Because facial hair is just so disgracefully unclean,” she said. “Mama says a man only wears a beard for the ladies.”

“And I’m a single man, am I not?” said Tio Rodrigo in mock indignation.

“Ah, but it’s really because Papa is such an esteemed merchant…and beards really aren’t very fashionable this year.”

“Bah, fashion!” spat Tio Rodrigo. “What can a sailor care for fashion, when he’s away for eight months of the twelve?”

“Papa says a man should put his family first.”

“And that’s the only reason why he lets me stay here year upon year, I suppose,” said Tio Rodrigo. “And if I was not such a very obliging man, and I did not shave my beloved beard away to a wozzly disorder, I would be slouching in the gutters right this moment, and not cosy by the fireplace.”

“Or idling at the inn,” suggested Catalina.

“Did I tell you about how I met Charlie Waslingham?” said Uncle Rodrigo.

“No, tio—never,” replied Catalina; though she knew the story well.

“Ah, well,” said Tio Rodrigo, elongating his vowels in an eerie manner, “it was a dark and ghostly time. The fog had engulfed us so that you could not see one end of the yard-arm from the other. Provisions were low, and sirens’ horns lowed through the heavy silence. Thick and still and ominous was the air—and empty, seemingly, before us.

“I recall not how long we glided through the fog, scarcely speaking, hearts lagging under their heavy-weighted chains of fear and dread. It was days—perhaps weeks—and the sky was never seen: black or blue, it was invisible.

“Then all of a sudden a great shape arose from the waves, and dark and huge it stooped to embrace our ship. We cowered from its touch, but the watchman yelled, ‘Land ho!’, and we realised that we had drifted into a narrow cliff-sheltered bay on a tiny rocky island. Full of hope and rapture, we anchored our ship and rowed ashore.

“And behold! There on a rock was huddled a man in a blanket, smoking a pipe and staring at us with eyes like cucumber slices.

“‘Lo,’ said I, ‘and who are you?’

“He lifted his head and I saw that he had several days’ growth of beard: a sort of deliberate stubble, such as one rarely sees at sea. He replied to me in some strange foreign tongue—English, I think—but all I heard was ‘Charles Waslingham’: his name, I supposed.

“The fogs did not clear, but the next morning we explored the cove. There was no way out, and no provisions to be discovered. Littering the rocks were strange spears with red tips, and, fearing an unexpected assault from Norman savages by some unseen passageway in the cliff, we returned to our ship.

“A good friend of mine spoke a little English, and he soon learned from Charles Waslingham that his fleet had been wrecked on the treacherous outcrops of the island some days ago. Our Charlie Waslingham was the sole survivor.

“And indeed, as we left that accursed place, flotsam and jetsam and all thinks wet and weary began to bubble to the surface and knock against the hull of the ship, like drowned souls clawing for help. I have not been North since, for fear of those dead sailors looking up at me through the mist and water.”

“What happened to Charlie?” said Catalina.

“I don’t know,” replied Tio Rodrigo. “He came back to Spain with us, not caring to go back to England as the lone survivor of an entire fleet’s wreckage. I heard he set sail with Cristobal Colon last year on another of his blasted fruitless missions. I only know that I will always refer to a half-growth of beard as wozzliness, after old Walsingham.”

Catalina clapped her hands at the tale, which was one of her favourites. “Tell me about Cristobal Colon now, tio!”

“Mercy on me, sobrina! I have the whole winter to tell you stories! One an evening will be quite enough.”

“Oh, but tio! The one about Charles Walsingham and the drowned sailors and the isolated cove is so short! Besides, I go to Grenada in less than a fortnight—and I may never see you again after that. Oh, I understand only too well what you say about sailing weather and docked ships!”'

The End

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