Letters from Armorica: Shipyards (29 December 1015)

Armand’s First Letter. Amelia’s First Letter.

13 Norwich Street, Yorke, Cumbria
29 December 1015

My dear cousin Amelia,

It is tempting to write to you in Provençese, but I fear I should sound unduly provincial and lead you astray. But may I say that it is quite odd to be in Yorke at this season after several years in Bois-de-Bas?

In Bois-de-Bas, all is quiet in this season—unless there is a blizzard, of course, a tourmente de neige. There is little work to do, no logging and little farming, just the little household tasks. Even those of us who follow a craft are less busy than usual for all that we work indoors. The folk keep to their homes and those of their neighbors, for the snow is above the eaves. On the day, all who can gather at the church do, briefly; for it is bitter cold, and we still have no priest. And then there is feasting, such feasting as one may have with the prospect of a long winter ahead.

In Yorke, by comparison, all is noise, all is bustle. I find I do not like it as well as I used, though possibly it is just that I am missing Amelie and my daughters. Still, we spent the day quietly, Mother and I, for your parents are in Wickshire with Cousin Edward and of course Jack remains in Mont-Havre. Our only outing was to the Guild Hall to see Father.

He has deteriorated even farther, I am afraid to say. He began to rant about his enemies and how they stolen his power and prestige, a rant we have both heard many times; and then, in mid-sentence, he seemed to forget what he was speaking of, and his manner became much more pleasant.

It was heartbreaking, Amelia, and yet quite a relief. Mother was overcome, though I think she will be able to visit more frequently now.

In the meantime, I have been learning more about ship-building. I raised the subject with John Netherington-Coates over a week ago, as I indicated to you that I would.

“I am cognizant of our contracts in that regard, of course,” he said, “but it is a side of our work with which I have had little to do. The man you want is Master Norfolk, from our house in Salisbury.” He paused, thinking. “I do believe he might be here in Town, visiting family.”

I was at Master Norfolk’s sister’s home the next day, at the first socially acceptable hour, and handed my card to the maid who answered the door. It was a small house in an unfashionable part of town; and I had to remind myself that for all of my father’s airs, your Dr. Laguerre is quite correct. We formers are artisans, and most of us live as such.

Master Norfolk received me in a small room with a table and chairs just off the kitchen, “For the rest of the place is beset with my sister and her brood,” he said. “Now, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

His manner was both wary and formal, and I realized he was seeing me not as me but as my father’s son and agent. I was taken aback, and I wondered what run-ins he might have had with Father, or what rumors he might have heard.

“Curiosity,” I said. “You might not be aware, but I emigrated to Armorica several years ago; and just recently I made the return voyage on a small packet. It is a long trip, and I was bored, and so I spent my time examining the forming.” I shrugged. “I spent little time with ships as an apprentice and journeyman, and now I find I have questions.”

I can admit to you, Amelia, that I felt desperately disingenuous.

“Well then,” he said, “ask.”

“In terms of formed members, all I found were the keel and rudder, hardened and formed to resist the air currents; the gunwhale supports, formed to lift; and a small set of elements to propel the ship around the harbor. Is that quite correct?”

He assented that it was.

“There seemed nothing particularly special about any of them, apart from their size. I’ve never formed anything remotely as large.”

“Nor is there,” said Master Norfolk, “and nor you won’t, neither, not on your own. We use a team of five formers, six if we can get ’em.”

“How do you know how to form them?” I said. Norfolk began to bristle, and I made haste to correct myself. “No, no, I’m not speaking of the forming proper, the hardening and so forth. I mean the size and shape of the members, and particularly those used to maneuver. How do you decide how powerful to make them?”

For the first time I began to see a glimmer of humor in Norfolk’s eyes, and a real easing in his manner.

“That I can tell you in two words. We don’t.”

I felt my eyebrows shoot up. “We don’t?”

He shook his head. “The shipwrights design them, the shipyards prepare the members for forming, and we work to their direction. Many’s the time I remember my old master suggesting that they make the motive blocks bigger; and each time he was told to mind his own business. Me, that’s not a wall I’ve chosen to beat my head against. We go in, we do the work, we leave.”

I was a little surprised, Amelia, but only a little. The shipyards have their secrets, just as we formers do, and the lack of progress in this area that I have seen had long ago suggested to me that no one had the full picture.

“Do you know any of the shipwrights to speak to?” I asked. “Do you suppose you could provide me with an introduction?”

He regarded me somberly for a long moment. “I don’t see as how it will do any harm. Though I don’t think it will do you much good, neither. The shipwrights are a closed-mouth bunch.” He took a scrap of paper and wrote down a name. “Master Eaves,” he said. “You’ll find him at the Ember and Sons yard in Salisbury. You might be able to get him talking if you catch him in his cups.”

“Thank you, Master Norfolk,” I said, and took my leave.

I have not yet made the journey to Salisbury, but be assured that I will.

Your inquisitive cousin,


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Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

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