Time’s Bending Sickle

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11. Time’s Injurious Hand

Toby, reddish stubble covering his thin cheeks, lay on his side on a filthy straw mattress, vomiting into a stinking basin. The room was a tiny, dark, irregular attic corner; a ragged curtain blocked off a triangular space. Groans and coughing could be heard coming from beyond the curtain. He lay back panting and called for water. Jean held the glass while I sipped the cool liquid; my bed was rumpled but clean, my room neat. The print on the wall was striped by light from the partly closed blinds; the surf crashed, the waves moved, the sails rippled. The old woman’s soiled linen apron smelled of bacon fat as she held the wooden cup for Toby. Wrinkling her nose, she emptied the basin into a bucket, called “Anon, anon!” impatiently, and flapped through the curtain. Jean turned off the light and shut the door. I thought I heard the TV saying that Reagan had been elected president; but I attributed this to delirium. The floors creaked annoyingly. The red numbers on the electric clock read “11:06.” I sat on the edge of the bed until my head settled, then shuffled to the bathroom, holding to the walls. Toby leaned against one of the low roof beams and urinated into a clay pot; he finished and stretched out on the bed, panting from the effort. Toby and I slurped from a bowl of chicken soup and chewed eagerly at a piece of bread. He put his lips to the bowl and drained it. He took his breeches from a peg and drew them on, tucking in his long-tailed shirt. He slipped his bare feet into his shoes and walked slowly toward the curtain. Passing through a larger room with three beds, each containing two sleeping or coughing men, one of whom I’d swear was Abner Cross, he descended several sets of dark, narrow stairs, and entered a courtyard containing geese, chickens, and a well. After some awkwardness with the bucket, he drew water and began splashing his face and scrubbing his hands. He looked up at the early afternoon sun breaking through the clouds, and three gulls flew over, squawking. I pulled up the blinds and let the sun in, then dug some fresh underwear out of my drawer.
After a shower and shave, I felt better, but tired. I crawled back into bed. Toby sat in the courtyard, eyes closed, soaking up sun. The old woman came out and began scattering crumbs from a basket, and the geese and chickens gathered noisily. After a while, she turned the basket over and beat on the bottom. Then she came to where Toby sat. She stretched her mouth, making her nose dip toward her chin.
“How now, Master Hume. Feeling better, are ye?”
“Yes, thank you, hostess. Your collace helped.”
“Pray that you keep it down,” she cackled. “It seemed to help your Ancient. He left yesterday while you were sleeping, and bade me tell you that he was off to the Low Countries. He gave me a sixpence for you, which leaves your reckoning at four shillins thrupenny fardin.”
“Did my captain not pay you anything?”
“Naught but one shillin and sweet words.”
The sun dipped behind the roof, and Toby shivered. “Good hostess, I hope I shall be stronger tomorrow. I must ask charity of you until I can collect my pay.”
“Charity begins at home, Master Hume. Have you no pledge to leave while you fetch your pay?”
“My cloak? Beyond that, I am naked.”
The old woman shook her head. Then she brightened, remembering something. “You have a fiddle. A servingman brought it Wednesday last, said he was the Earl of Essex’s man.” She snorted skeptically. “I might take that for a pledge.”
“Where is it?” Toby was alert, eager.
“Here, come see.” She led Toby inside and into her kitchen. There, leaning in a corner, was the Portuguese viol in its now battered case. Toby took it out, tightened and tuned the strings–remarkably, none were broken–took up the bow and played a piece I recognized as one he published in 1605 called “Life.”
“Well done, Master Hume,” the hostess said with a nod. “That fiddle is more grumblesome than others I have heard, but it will suffice for my pledge. And if you please to play for my guests tonight, you may earn somewhat towards redeeming it. D’ye know ‘John Dory’?”
“Thank you, hostess, I may play ‘John Dory’ for your guests. And maybe ‘Turkeyloney.’ Until I get my pay.”
“In sooth. Until you get your pay.”

Toby looked a bit better when I saw him next, and his clothes were cleaner but worn. He was sawing away on his viol in a corner of the public room of the old woman’s tavern. A few of the patrons in the rush-floored room appeared to be listening to Toby as they drank their ale, but others were gaming and talking or warming their backsides at the fire, and a harassed tapster trotted between the bar and the private rooms down the hall. Two new customers entered, one big and red-nosed, one lean and stooped. They wore plumed hats, high boots, and, like most of the others, swords under their cloaks. The large man pounded on the bar and demanded service in a resonant voice.
“Hostess! A quart of canaries in the Rose!”
The hostess comes forward, wiping her hands on her smudged apron. “Good captain, be pleased to take the Grapes, for the Rose is occupied.”
“God’s kneecaps, dame,” the man bellowed, “the Grapes is worse than your jakes. The Rose or the Crown.”
Toby looked up and stopped playing. The man turned toward where the music had been, then peered through the murk. Toby rose and stepped forward.
“Captain Hall, Ancient Prothero, well met.”
“Hume!” Hall’s mouth and eyes widened. “God’s earlobes, why are you in Dover and not in France with Sir Roger?”
“I came home sick from Portugal, and was left here. I am well enough now, but in debt to mine hostess.”
“I wish you joy of your health,” said Prothero. “Wish me joy of my lieutenancy. I am no more ancient.”
Toby shook his hand. “Well deserved, I’m sure.”
The tapster hurried up. “Sirs, I have set your wine in the Crown.”
“Very well. Bring us another cup. Come, Hume, share our wine. I have some news for you that I did not expect to give you so soon.”
They entered a narrow room with a crown painted on the door. There was a fireplace with a small fire beginning to catch, a table, a bench, and two stools. The tapster hurriedly added a cup to the two set by the wine jug. Hall sat with a grunting sigh and splashed out wine into the cups, making a faint gesture of salute before taking a good swallow. He looked at Toby. “You should know that a woman with letters of yours claimed your pay.”
“Good. Thank you. Please, sir, tell me how I might get my pay for my service in Portugal. I have enquired of several officers, but got no satisfaction.”
Hall looked down and shook his head. Prothero smiled ironically. “If Sir Roger were here, I might do something, but he is in France. So I think is your captain. Who was he?”
“Captain Cosbie.”
“Ay, he is in France, and has no doubt spent your pay. But I’ll do what I can, though I cannot hope for much. My lord treasurer, Sir Thomas Sherley, keeps strange accounts, from what I hear.”
Toby hesitated. “Captain Hall, did . . . were my other letters delivered, do you know?”
Hall looked at Prothero, who again smiled ironically. “I spoke to Rafe when he collected his pay,” said Prothero. “He said to tell you that he could not reach the lady, but gave your letters to her sister.”
Toby looked distressed, then hopeful, then worried. Finally he sighed resignedly. Hall watched him indulgently, then drank off his wine and banged the cup on the table.
“Well, by God’s points and trusses, enough of this effeminate hugger-mugger! We have more manly business forward. Now Hume”–he poured Toby more wine–“we have heard from some of Sir Roger’s people that you aquitted yourself manfully in Portugal.”
“I only tried to stay alive.”
“Come now, a soldier may boast of truth. Now attend. You know the Dutch Prince William, the one they call the Silent, was murdered by the Spanish, and his eldest son imprisoned. Parma must have thought he had the Dutch by the ballocks. But William’s second son, Prince Maurice, a man not much older than yourself, is showing some strength, and is like to prove a brave commander. Now the word I have”–he leaned forward and lowered his voice–“is that sundry Scots and Englishmen are going to join his army, and that he pays well, and timely, too.” He drank, winking over the brim of the cup.
“We are taking a few experimented men to offer our services,” said Prothero with his tight smile. “A few men like you.”
“What say you,” said Hall, “are you with us?” He cocked his head and squinted.
Toby looked reluctant. He stared at his wine cup, moving it from hand to hand. “Good sirs, I thank you for your good opinion. But my–I needs must collect my Portugal pay and send it to my wife. And I am in debt here.”
“Tush, man,” said Hall. “You may make thrice in two months in the Low Countries what you would get by waiting six months on my lord treasurer in London. What’s your reckoning here?”
“Tis now three shillings fourpence. And my instrument is pledged.”
Hall took out a purse and dropped it on the table with a chunk. “We are so confident of the prince that I will advance you enough to pay your debt”–he slapped down a coin–“buy you clothes and a sword”–another two coins–“and have something to send your wife in earnest of more”–three coins this time. He shoved the money toward Toby.
Toby looked at the silver with a troubled frown, and made no move to take it. Hall looked at Prothero, who jerked his chin. Hall put down another coin. “And as you are to be ancient, here’s another crown. We can get your commission good cheap, and you may pay us at your leisure.”
Toby looked up, then away. “How long are we–you–to serve?”
“Who knows?” shrugged Hall. “A few months. A year.”
Toby stared at the money for several moments. Hall and Prothero sat silently, sipping wine. Slowly, Toby cupped a hand around the coins and slid them into his other hand. “When do we go?”

Toby stood behind Hall and Prothero, who were seated at a long table in a dark wood-paneled room along with some twenty other men. Several other men stood. The view out the many-paned window on Toby’s left showed new leaves emerging on trees in a large courtyard. A melancholy-looking young man with a high forehead sat at the head of the table listening to another man speak in what I soon realized was Dutch. I couldn’t understand it, but I heard so many words that sounded vaguely English or German, that I thought I should be able to get it if I only paid attention. After a while, the young man at the head of the table said a few words to the speaker, then to the assembly in general. His voice was deep and penetrating. He was plainly dressed in a brown wool doublet and hose and a small pleated ruff; but his presence seemed to command attention. He had large hazel eyes, a straight nose, thick lips, and a heavy jaw; except for a moustache and a tuft of beard on his chin, he was clean-shaven. He rose, and all those seated rose too. Toby followed Hall and Prothero out into a hallway, where they caught up with a man in his thirties. He had freckles and a hawkish nose between dark blue eyes.
“Captain Balfour,” said Hall, “did you understand that?”
“Aye, captain. Prince Maurice said that while the Duke of Parma is busy in France, we must sieze opportunity by the forelock.” He spoke with a decided Scots accent.
Prothero gave one of his ironic smiles. “While the cat’s away, the mice will play.”
Balfour smiled briefly. “Just so. We are ordered to hasten our training so that we may repeat the success of the taking of Breda.”
“Where are we to go?” asked Toby.
“We are not told yet. If we are to surprise the Spaniard, it is well if few know.”
Balfour allowed himself to be wined at a tavern nearby and to be pumped on what he knew of Prince Maurice, his strategy, his methods.
“The prince is both learned and wise,” said Balfour, “remarkable in one so young. He loves to cite the ancients, especially the Emperor Leo’s Tactics, and the works of Aelian. Yet he does not scorn to learn from his present enemies, and he does not allow the ancients to cast mist over his eyes when he looks about him. I know of no commander who has thought so deeply about firearms. And with the help of his old tutor, now our quartermaster, Simon Stevin, he has learned a great truth about how to use this country’s greatest weapon.”
“And what is that?” asked Toby.
“Why, water. You will see in our fortifications.”
“Were you at Breda?”
“Aye. But I came in at the end. I was not one of the heroes of that famous exploit.”
Toby leaned forward eagerly. “We have heard enough to whet our appetites for more, but never the whole tale. Would you be good enough to tell it, sir?”
Hall signalled for more wine. Balfour smiled with closed lips and let his cup be filled. “I shall tell it to my grandchildren, if I live, for tis a tale worthy of Virgil. I have heard it from Captain Heraugiere himself, our Ulysses, and have gathered particulars from Captain Fervet and Lieutenant Held as well.
“You must know,” began Balfour, touching up the ends of his moustache after drinking, “that the castle at Breda was garrisoned by Italians in the service of Spain. It has a deep double moat that joins with the Merk, and on this river a boatman named van der Berg was wont to bring peat to the castle for fuel. This man obtained a secret audience with Prince Maurice, and assured him that the garrison was so used to his coming and going, that they would not search his boat. Prince Maurice found the boatman to be trustworthy, and proposed a stratagem to Captain Heraugiere. Now this captain was especially eager to show his valor and loyalty. He agreed to the stratagem, and chose sixty-eight brave men to venture with him.
“They were to meet with the boatman near the Swertensburg ferry, but he did not appear at the appointed time. After many cold hours, when they were returning to the prince, they met the boatman, who claimed that he had overslept. But they perceived some signs of cowardice about him, if not treachery. In despite of all, they agreed to meet the next night. This time, the white-livered boatman sent his two nephews and stayed home. But twas a good bargain, for they were good boatmen, and made good their boast that they were daredevils.
“Now the captain and his men went down in the hold of the boat, and the boatmen packed the turfs of peat so that it would seem that the boat was full. Matthew Held said they felt like herrings in a barrel. Then the boat began to make way up the river to the castle. Unhappily, the wind was in their teeth, and they made slow progress. It was still February, and there were great lumps of ice in the river, as well as sleet in the wind. At last the boat could not move at all, and the poor men sat in the hold from Monday night to Thursday morning, with their wee bit of food and drink long gone, perishing with cold. They wisely took thought and saw that if they were to have strength for their enterprise, they must somehow restore themselves.
“They were then near Nordam castle, where they thought they might be received secretly. The master there was most hospitable, and they fed and warmed themselves for most of a day. But then the boatmen came with news that the wind had changed, and they returned to the hold, expecting to be out and about their work in a few hours. But they sat for more than a day.”
Toby shivered sympathetically, and stirred the fire. Balfour swished wine in his mouth, and continued.
“Finally on Saturday afternoon they passed the last sluice before the castle, and there was no going back. As they neared the water-gate, an officer from the castle rowed out to meet them. He looked over the peat and sat about at tittle-tattle with the boatmen in the cabin, a thin plank away from the men. If a man had sneezed or coughed, it would have gone hard for them all. At last the officer left, and the boat proceeded toward the water-gate.
“As ill-luck would have it, the boat then struck a rock and sprang a leak. Only manful pumping kept it from sinking, and the poor men in the hold were soon sitting in water. You can barely conceive how cold it was. Matthew Held said he could not feel his toes until hours after they got out. The soldiers from the castle soon had lines to the boat and warped it through the gate into the inner harbor, where it was made fast near the guard-house. It had been cold for some time, and the ice had prevented the delivery of peat, so the garrison was eager for fuel, and the unloading went faster than our men wished; they needed the cover of darkness, and it was still light. Worse yet, the cold bath the leak had given them had set them all to coughing and sneezing. Matthew Held was so struck by coughing that he handed his dagger to the man next him and beseeched him to stab him to the heart if he should cough, so that the whole company should not be betrayed. But our boatmen had the wit to man the pumps with great clatter and ado. The nephew who had assumed the part of the skipper also kept up a stream of jests and blether with the soldiers and unnecessary orders to his brother, so that none noticed the coughing.
“This same skipper–who should have been a player on the stage–soon saw that if the workers removed much more peat the secret cargo would be revealed. So, feigning fatigue, he called a halt to the work and gave the workers money to buy beer. They left for the town, along with the brother boatman, who was to go secretly to Prince Maurice to tell him of how things stood; this boatman also bore news he had heard from the soldiers of the garrison, namely that the governor had gone to Getruydenberg, leaving his young kinsman in command, he being most unfit for that office. The skipper and one of the guard were left alone. The guardsman falls to complaining about the quality of the peat, saying that his captain would never be satisfied with it. This precious rogue of a skipper–I drink his health–then says to the guardsman, ‘Ah, but the best part of the cargo is is yet to be unloaded, and it is expressly reserved for the captain. He is sure to get enough of it tomorrow.'”
His audience laughed heartily at this. Balfour smiled, hooking his beaky nose.
“Before leaving the hold, Captain Heraugiere spoke to his men, telling them that their future held only complete victory or certain death, since retreat was not possible. And if any should prove coward or traitor he would kill them with his own hands. But he doubted not that all would prove worthy of the honor accorded them in being chosen, and if that all did their duty he was assured of their success. He himself would lead the attack on the main guard house, while Captain Fervet would lead half of the company to take the armory.
“Captain Heraugiere and the rest then leave the boat and approach the guard house. When a sentry challenges him, ‘Who’s there?’ he answers, ‘A friend,’ and takes him by the throat. ‘Speak only in a whisper, or you are a dead man,’ says the captain. ‘How many men are in the garrison?’ ‘Three hundred and fifty,’ says the guard. ‘How many?’ asks the man next the captain. ‘He says fifty,’ says the captain.”
This brought smiles to Hall and Prothero, and a look of concern to Toby.
“Well, the captain of the guard steps out. ‘Who’s there?’ ‘A friend,’ says our captain, and runs him through. More come out, some dozen; they fight for a bit, even give our captain a wee wound. But then they run back into the guard-house. Our captain orders his men to fire through the windows and doors, and they kill them all.
“In the meantime Captain Fervet and his men had taken the armory and killed the soldiers there. The young deputy governor and some of his men came out of the palace, but were soon driven back and into a close corner. The rest of the garrison ran like rats from a house afire, spreading panic in the town. Back in the castle, the deputy governor offered to parley, hoping to gain time for a rescue. But just before dawn, old Hohenlo and his men were at the gates, which were better guarded by ice than by the Italians, for they were frozen fast. They had to batter down the wall near the water-gate and come in the way our Trojan sea-horse had come. And not long after that, the Prince and the main force, of which I had the honor to be a part, marched into the town singing ‘Wilhelmus van Nassau.’ Sir Francis Vere’s Englishmen were also in this band.
“Our men had killed forty of the garrison, and lost never a single man. The town paid every soldier two months’ pay to commute plunder. The prince has a rich and handsome town for the States. Tis indeed a tale worth telling.”
Hall, Prothero, and Toby agreed heartily.
At the urging of Hall, Balfour went from this exploit to the more arcane details of the Dutch drill. He told how repetition helped make a complex task like loading and firing a musket automatic, for the distractions of battle often prevented conscious thought. Repetition also promoted speed, one of the themes in all the Dutch drills and tactics. Instead of taking nearly an hour to form a body of a thousand men, Balfour claimed the Dutch could form two thousand in twenty minutes. The tactical units were smaller and more controllable, and could therefore change direction and focus very quickly.
“Here’s something the Prince learned from the ancients,” said Balfour. “Tis a way of making orders clear. Commands often come in two parts, and we give the particular part of the command first, then the general: thus we say ‘left face’ instead of ‘face left.'”

I experienced a montage of visions of Toby learning and then performing the Dutch drills with various weapons. Then the company divided into smaller squads, with a ratio of about two musketeers or calivers for every pikeman. Unlike the square formations of bristling pikes one can see in old pictures, the Dutch units were shallower and more flexible. Toby and the other soldiers practiced a variety of fast, close maneuvers, wheeling, reversing, presenting firearms through a screen of pikes.
Then as summer came on, I saw Toby in another montage as the army took a succession of towns and strongholds, whose names I got from history books: Heyl, Flemert, Elshout, Steenbergen, Rosendael, Oosterhout. What I saw was scenes of sporadic fighting, orderly occupations, and occasional digging and bombardment: Toby marching with his company into a town, Toby watching cannon fire into a wall while he covered his ears, Toby digging in a trench along with other officers and men. Once I saw a pike-wielding Toby lead a group of soldiers rather dramatically over a slope of rubble where a section of town wall had been. They shouted enthusiastically, but met no opponents.
The seasons changed, the canals froze, and snow appeared on the ground. Toby’s group settled in a larger town for the winter. Many of them diced, played cards, and drank heavily, in scenes right out of Adriaen Brouwer. Toby practiced his viol, and wrote music.
Except for a liason officer who spoke both Dutch and English, all the men in Balfour’s regiment, which contained Toby’s company, spoke mainly English. Along with Toby and his comrades, I learned some of the basic Dutch commands, and I listened carefully to the translators. Many of the officers spoke French, which I could sometimes follow on my own. But I still heard a lot of confusing gabble.
Much of the talk, in English and, as far as I could tell, in other languages, was about religion. Since most of those opposed to the Spanish were Protestants, the discussions tended to be about fine distinctions between reformist sects. Some of these arguments became quite loud, and threatened to become violent; but the quarreling parties could usually find a common ground in anti-Catholic sentiments. Toby tended to listen quietly, then go practice his viol.

Still a bit weak in the knees, I returned to work to find Cullen Computing in a frantic buzz of phone calls, paper shuffling, and computer punching. Going Public Day was hard upon us.

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