Letters from Armorica: Eaves (12 January 1016)

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

13 Norwich Street, Yorke, Cumbria
12 January 1016

My dear cousin Amelia,

Thanks to Master Eaves of the Ember and Sons Shipyards in Salisbury, I am now acquainted with far too many of the low taverns and gin-houses in that vicinity. You might think that this is because it took me some time to locate the gentleman; but you would be mistaken.

No, I found him, as Master Norfolk had suggested, at the Ember and Sons Shipyards. He then dragged me through them all of a purpose. I think it gave him positive pleasure to discomfit a grandmaster of the Former’s Guild.

But I am ahead of myself.

I found a sleepy-eyed man near the entrance to the yards, who directed me to a long shed where a man in a short coat and knee-breeches was examining a ship plan laid out on a work table. I had to pick my way down the length of the shed, stepping over various sections of lumber that included, if I am not mistaken, the keel of a new vessel.

I stood there for some moments, ignored, and then essayed a small cough.

He turned and said, “Here, who are you?”

“Armand Tuppenny, of the Armorican Former’s Guild,” I said. “Master Norfolk gave me your name.”

“Did he now?” The shipwright pursed his lips. “We’ve got contracts enough with the guild house here in Salisbury; there’s no work for you here.” He grinned, not a very nice grin. “Not that I suppose you’d be able to supply a team of formers from all that way.”

“Nor was I expecting any work, Master Eaves,” I said. “I would just like a few moments of your time. Perhaps over a drink?”

He rubbed his chin with the back of his forefinger, glanced back at the plans, and considered. Then he walked to the door of the shed to check the angle of the sun, traversing the obstacles without seeming to notice them.

“It’s late enough for all that,” he said. Which it was, for I’d made sure of it. “Very well, then.” With quick, careful motions he slid the corners of the plan out from under the bags of sand that held them down, and rolled it up into a tube. “I must stow this, and then I’m your man.”

Less accurate words were perhaps never spoke, Amelia. Which is to say, he did stow the plans, and right quickly, but to say that he was my man was to him exceed the truth. And I may honestly say that I’m grateful, for I should not wish to be responsible for him.

He drew me along to a low building across the way from the shipyard. “We’ll start here, Master Tuppenny,” he said. “Grandmaster,” I corrected him, which perhaps was a mistake. Had I put more weight on that ominous phrase “start here,” and less on my own personal consequence, I might have found the next morning to be more pleasant.

The floor was covered with dirty sawdust; the tables were rough-hewn; the smell was not to be described. Master Eaves called out “Two ales, Jennie,” as we entered, and led me to a table in the corner.

The barmaid brought two leather jacks of ale and waited as I counted out a few coins. Eaves quaffed his with evident satisfaction, and then said. “So, Grandmaster,” what can I do for you?”

“I have never had much to do with shipbuilding,” I said. “Master Norfolk has explained to me just what he does for Ember and Sons, which is little enough it seems. You prepare the keel and other members, and all of their specifications; and the team of formers forms them to your direction.”

“That’s so, so it is.” He nodded, and gave my jack a pointed glance. “You’re not drinking your ale, Grandmaster.”

I admit, Amelia, to being suspicious of the kind of ale I would find in such a place. But under his gaze I took a large swallow. It wasn’t entirely horrible, I suppose, though Eaves raised an amused eyebrow at my expression.

I took another swallow, and said, “I would imagine that ships of different sizes have somewhat different needs. How do you know what to tell the formers to do?”

His face darkened, and I held up my hand. “Do you know, Master Norfolk gave me just that same look. I believe he thought I was questioning his expertise. Really, I’m just wanting to know more about it.”

His expression, which had started to ease, began to darken again.

“In general terms only!” I said. “No craft secrets. And in any event, I shall be returning to Armorica as soon as may be.”

“You speak Cumbrian awfully well for a Provençese colonist,” he said, eyes narrowed.

“I was raised in Yorke. I emigrated just a few years ago; I am back for just a short visit.”

“And why would you have gone off to the colonies?”

“I had a falling out with my grandmaster in Yorke.”

That amused him, as I thought it might; apparently even in Salisbury they know my father’s reputation.

“And now you’re the grandmaster in Armorica?”

“It’s a small pond, Master Eaves, just I and my two apprentices. Someone has to do it.”

“Hah!” He drained his jack. “Drink up. I can’t speak of these things here.”

And he watched while I did, and then led me out and down the road to another tavern some distance along, where he called out, “Two ales, Maggie!”

I will not bore, revolt, or, perhaps, fascinate you with all of the goings on during that long, odious evening, nor will I describe Annie, Jo, Marie, Alice, or any of the other barmaids Master Eaves called out to. He had me over a barrel, and he knew it; and he led me from one inn to another, tantalizing me with small tidbits of shipbuilding lore. I may say that I did not disgrace myself—quite. But I am glad that I had not introduced myself as the son of Burlington Massey, the grandmaster of the guild in Yorke.

What I learned, along with a mass of trivialities, digressions, tales meant to be amusing, and veiled insults, was this: There is a formula—when I pressed him, Eaves muttered something that sound like “the Two-Yard Rule”—by which Cumbrian shipwrights determine the size and other specifications of the formed members given the dimensions and draft of the ship. Among other details, the rule ensures that the motive blocks provide just the merest degree of propulsion.

“Do all shipwrights use these formulae?”

“Every twenty or thirty years, some damn fool decides he knows better,” Eaves said. “And after the next few ships are lost, that shipyard closes down.” He tossed back another jack of ale. “If the crown don’t close it for ’em.”

I left him shortly thereafter, for I knew he wouldn’t tell me the details of the “Two-Yard Rule”; and in truth I didn’t need him to.

I will draw a veil over my passage back to the inn where I was staying, a much more charming establishment than any of the ones to which Master Eaves led me; nor shall I describe my profuse apologies to the innkeeper the following morning, for it was quite late when I returned. I will only say that whereas I had intended to return immediately to Yorke, I found it good to extend my stay by another day.

Still, I learned what I came to learn, Amelia; which is that neither the formers nor the shipwrights truly understand what makes a sky-ship safe. The formers know only the forming; and the shipwrights have only a rule-of-thumb to guide them, a rule passed down from master to apprentice and understood by neither.

For all my talk of craft secrets I was hoping for more than that; I was hoping to learn that the shipwrights knew more than I about balancing greedy and generous formed members, so that I could learn from them. But as it is, I now know that I have a clear field. I may need more formers to form the members for a vessel of the kind I am contemplating; but I can be sure that no one else will manage it before I do.

I will need to check my calculations when I return to Armorica; but I believe I can build a small ship that can make the passage back to Cumbria significantly faster than Master Eaves would believe possible.

In the meantime I shall build some models, and wait with as much patience as I can muster for the fruits of Wackspallen’s investigations.

Your delighted cousin,


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Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

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