January 29 , 2010

The Blue Pavilions


At noonday, on the 11th of October, 1673, the little seaport of Harwich, beside the mouth of the River Stour, presented a very lively appearance. More than a hundred tall ships, newly returned from the Dutch War, rode at anchor in the haven, their bright masts swaying in the sunshine above the thatched and red-tiled roofs of the town. Tarry sailors in red and grey kersey suits, red caps and flat-heeled shoes jostled in the narrow streets and hung about St. Nicholas's Churchyard, in front of the Admiralty House, wherein the pursers sat before bags and small piles of money, paying off the crews. Soldiers crowded the tavern doors—men in soiled uniforms of the Admiral's regiment, the Buffs and the 1st Foot Guards; some with bandaged heads and arms, and the most still yellow after their seasickness, but all intrepidly toasting the chances of Peace and the girls in opposite windows. Above their laughter, and along every street or passage opening on the harbour—from Cock and Pye Quay, from Lambard's stairs, the Castleport, and half a dozen other landing-stages—came wafted the shouts of captains, pilots, boatswains, caulkers, longshore men; the noise of artillery and stores unlading; the tack-tack of mallets in the dockyard, where Sir Anthony Deane's new ship the Harwichwas rising on the billyways, and whence the blown odours of pitch and hemp and timber, mingling with the landward breeze, drifted all day long into the townsfolk's nostrils, and filled their very kitchens with the savour of the sea. In the thick of these scents and sounds, and within a cool doorway, before which the shadow of a barber's pole rested on the cobbles, reclined Captain John Barker—a little wry-necked gentleman, with a prodigious hump between his shoulders, and legs that dangled two inches off the floor. His wig was being curled by an apprentice at the back of the shop, and his natural scalp shone as bare as a billiard-ball; but two patches of brindled grey hair stuck out from his brow above a pair of fierce greenish eyes set about with a complexity of wrinkles. Just now, a coating of lather covered his shrewish underjaw. The dress of this unlovely old gentleman well became his rank as captain of his Majesty's frigate the Wasp, but went very ill with his figure—being, indeed, a square-cut coat of scarlet, laced with gold, a long-flapped blue waistcoat, black breeches and stockings. Enormous buckles adorned the thick-soled shoes which he drummed impatiently against the legs of his chair.
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