April Fools Day 2019
The weathered journal found in that attic contained page after page of scribbled writing, punctuated with a few sketches and ending with a code to break. Coffee, tea, and even some greasy popcorn helped age the book, which switched between pen and pencil and did its best to masquerade as an authentic artifact from 1951.
It’s not a fancy story, but designed as a starting point for what was to be the real adventure, uncovering the story of Clement and his ancestor Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot (A.C.M.A.) or “Avenging Clarice,” if you prefer, still keeping the acronym that (coupled with the date of its discovery) was meant to tip off readers that they were part of a little installation art, not any kind of malicious hoax.
The pages are a bit tough to read, scratchy handwriting, almost 70 years old, but transcribed the story goes…
Journal of Clement Arbuthnot
I went to the doctor today and found out that if I don’t want this story lost, I need to write it down now. Not his week, maybe, or even this month, but by spring for sure. After that I won’t be here to write.
Mary is too young to read this, but I’ll put the story in this notebook and leave it for her. She’ll be clever, like her mother -not me- and at the end of it she can use the map to dig up her inheritance. With Stalin rattling his saber and the mess that’s brewing in Korea it’s probably safer in the ground than anywhere else.
Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot served honorably in the British Navy from 1681-1708. Then a series of decisions, only some his own, and a revelation that everyone agreed should have come about three decades earlier, ushered him into a short lived turn as a pirate.
My mother told me the story, as her mother had told her, and her mother before her, when she showed me the cup and what little was left of pirate Arbuthnot’s treasure. By then the trove was so whittled away by the generations that it could fit in a cardboard box.
Hard luck, that.
As a boy, Clarence took to sea in the furor of Ceylon brought about by Knox’s book. At thirteen he was too young to be a standard sailor and too old to be a novice cabin boy, so he stowed away on the Tonqueen Merchant, hoping to be discovered when far enough out to sea that a trip back to port would be seen as a waste of time.
Of course they could have tossed him overboard, but Clarence relied on that old adage: “One might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb.”
He was not thrown into the sea.
Clarence sailed with Knox for a year, before finding the captain lacking the character he had suggested for himself in his book, and he jumped ship to join the navy, complete with reasonable skills as a sailor and the swagger of a boy older than he was.
He progressed through the ranks from 1683 to 1688, sailing mostly in the north sea and pausing, albeit briefly, after a devastating loss to the Dutch during the invasion that led the Prince of Orange to the throne of England.
I envy Clarence’s energy. At forty I shuffle along like an old man, hardly able to finish my route before it’s time for the students to go home. I’m tired by the time I’ve emptied the wastebaskets, washed the chalkboards, and mopped up the hallway. Mrs. Peer, as tough as she is, likes me, and I heard her tell the teachers that they needed to have the children do their part and pick up after themselves. I think she can see me breathing harder than I ought to.
Still, she hasn’t said a thing. For that I am thankful.
Yesterday Miss Moshofsky, the arts and crafts teacher, gave me a felt and paper mache puppet for Mary. She loved it, and laughed and laughed when I made the cow moo. I fear it means Miss Moshofsky can see I’m sick too. Still, no charity, only kindness.
While William was king, Clarence lurked along the coastal shadows fishing and -according to family lore- writing poetry. Only scraps remain, and of those the only worth repeating is the snatch of verse I remember seeing cross stitched and framed above my grandmother’s fireplace.
Crabs scraping the sand
Are angels in disguise
When King Billy left the throne Clarence made his return to naval service. By now he had acquired tattoos on both arms and a scar that twisted down his left cheek from the corner of his eye to his chin. Those who knew him said he stayed clean shaven simply to show off that scar.
Thanksgiving is close and mother and Mary are planning a big dinner, maybe even a goose. I’ll use the break to polish the wainscoting while the children are out of school. By the time the teachers and students return the school will glow. If I can I’ll touch up the trim in front, and get the big ladder to repaint the chips on the C.E. Mason letters above the front door before the weather turns for good and we’re all driven inside.
The newly returned Clarence Arbuthnot served as bos’n for only two years before getting a commission of his own. He’d re-entered the navy a true tarpaulin, hardened by his time as a subsistence fisherman and hungry to make his mark. By 1705, as the British naval world was evolving, he was given a ship, the Dolphin, and sent to keep peace in the North Sea.
It was here, in the heart of winter, that Captain Arbuthnot met a Dutch pirate, made his mark, and ensured his eventual downfall.
Captain Arbuthnot’s first mate was a sailor named Merton, a tall Welshman who had lost one ear in the Seven Years War. Merton had his eyes on a captaincy, and had sailed on the Dolphin before Arbuthnot arrived.
It was Merton who first spotted the Dutch ship just before fog covered the ocean and the waves rose lifting the Dolphin and the pirate ship up and down at the beginning of a storm. Captain Arbuthnot barked one order to his crew, a well practiced prompt to silence and industry as they reefed the sails and battened hatches, preparing to ride out the storm without being spotted by the pirates.
They were not so lucky.
As the wind rose and rain began, the Dolphin was hit with an enormous shock. The timbers cracked and sailors fell to the deck, jarred by the collision as the pirate ship rammed into their hull. It may have startled the pirates too, as the ships separated before grappling hooks flew into the Dolphin’s masts and pulled the two vessels together again.
A screaming hoard of pirates swung onto the Dolphin, met with force by Arbuthnot and his crew. The English were outnumbered, but better trained, led, and equipped.
Captain Arbuthnot, Merton at his side, battled the pirates and the deck ran red. Lightning joined the rain, the wind roared, and a mast pulled away from the Dolphin with a sickening splintering crack. Merton was trapped beneath it. Two pirates advanced toward him.
Pulling his sword from the chest of a pirate, Captain Arbuthnot hurried to his first mate, turning his back on the rest of the battle as he lopped the heads off both pirates in one stroke. A second later the captain’s shirt blossomed red as a pistol shot cut through his side and he lurched forward, landing on Merton.
Merton drew Arbuthnot’s pistol and shot back, ending the pirate’s life, then rolled Arbuthnot over on his back and ripped away his jacket and shirt to stop the flow of blood with the fabric. Arbuthnot struggled, but Merton succeeded in plugging the deep hole cut beside the captain’s ribs.
The captain stirred, sat up, covering himself with his jacket against the rain and gritting his teeth with pain. Two sailors freed Merton and hurried both him and Arbuthnot to the captain’s cabin while the English sailors finished off the remaining pirates.
The storm raged, and Arbuthnot ordered his men to board the pirate ship and empty its hold into their own before cutting the ships apart and sailing for home.
As the ship’s doctor stitched up Arbuthnot’s wound and set Merton’s broken leg, more than two hundred chests were transferred into the hold of the Dolphin. It was the richest prize ever taken in the North Sea.
For the next few hours the storm howled, the English sailors performed bravely as they transferred the pirate treasure, and Arbuthnot and Merton lay alone in the cabin, each wrestling with his own pain.
The story goes that Merton raged when the spirits the doctor had given him to dull the pain rendered him incapacitated and that his haunting words to the captain, words that he would repeat off the coast of Toulon, were simple and few. He shouted, heard only in the cabin, drowned out on deck by the growing storm, over and over: “I know.”
Found the perfect place for the map today, up and out of the way, behind a locked door. With the extra key I’ll tuck in this book, Mary will have no problem retrieving it when the time is right. I’ll tie it with a red string, so she can find it. I wish there was more in the jar, but I’ll imagine there is enough.
If only the world were as simple as Mary’s joy in Miss Moshofsky’s cow. She now asks for a puppet show every night before bedtime. She is a joy.
I will never see her reach ten.
After another two years of distinguished service, and with the Dutch pirates’ treasure safely locked away in London, Clarence was given the title of admiral in 1707, though he retained his position aboard the Dolphin and seemed hungry for battle. With the French massing a Mediterranean fleet Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot sailed to Toulon to take part in what would turn into an English rout of the French. It would also be the beginning of his end.
The Dolphin joined a flotilla of ships to take the French fleet massing in the harbor of Toulon. Arbuthnot was impatient, as always, and frustrated by the English reluctance to skirmish in the harbor where more than fifty French warships anchored, preparing for battle.
That’s when Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot decided to do something daring, and maybe a little foolish.
With Captain Merton frowning at the plan, Arbuthnot commandeered a skiff and with two other sailors snuck into the harbor after dark. They slid up to a French warship, climbed aboard, and disabled the watch. Then, without rousing the crew, they blocked off the hatches leading below decks, effectively making the French crew prisoners on their own ship, raised a white flag of surrender, and prepared to sail out of the harbor.
That’s when a cannon shot from the Dolphin broke the silence of night and woke the French fleet.
Arbuthnot and his sailors hopped down to their skiff and sailed out of the harbor as the French came alive. They returned to the Dolphin, swearing at the rapscallion who had ruined their gambit, and as they topped the rail and stepped onto the deck were greeted by Captain Merton and a contingency of sailors who clapped them in irons and called them traitors. Merton, scowling at the admiral, let no one know he had been aware of Arbuthnot’s plan and instead said, for all the crew to hear: “Admiral Arbuthnot is a fraud!”
No such drama at Mason Elementary. The weather has turned and rain fills every day. The children are anxious to get back out on the playground, but the foursquare courts are puddles and the children have to stay indoors. The teachers feel the students’ pent up frustration and do their best to make lessons interesting, but yesterday I saw a pack of five boys running down the hallway whooping like a gang of Tarzans. I stepped in front of them and they stopped with a “Sorry, Mr. Arbuthnot,” but I suspect they laughed at their prematurely aging janitor as they walked away. Mine is not a life of adventure.
The French burned their fleet the next morning. Convinced they could not defeat the English, they sunk their ships to block the harbor and set about the ugly business of losing a fight.
Admiral Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot was left in the brig while his two sailors seemed to have disappeared overnight. Captain Merton convened a court martial and marched Arbuthnot to the highest point of the ship, the crew looking on as he paced in front of the admiral.
Now it is important to remember that naval life at this time was a strange and insular world. Men sailed ships and women stayed on shore. The navy was emerging as the great power it would become, moving from a more amateur affiliation of ships to the organized and relatively efficient machine it would be for the next several centuries. Any challenge to this order was met with force, and anything thought to question the established way of the world was viewed as a challenge to all the privileged class deemed right.
This forced the unconventional to mask themselves in ways that allowed them to follow their paths just outside the bright light of social rules. On the sea, where fewer questions were asked if a sailor did his job and followed the rules, individuals were judged mostly by merit, but even there some transgressions were beyond the pale.
Merton knew this as he paced back and forth behind Arbuthnot, who had been driven to his knees and waited, a bayonet to his head, for whatever would come next. Merton knew this as he raised his voice so everyone could hear as he addressed the crew. “This creature is a fraud, an abomination, an affront to nature.”
The captain grabbed Arbuthnot’s collar and with a theatrical gesture pulled his shirt up over the admiral’s head, buttons popping off against his chin. Her chin.
Arbuthnot made no effort to hide as Merton scowled at her and twisted looked wildly around the ship to make certain everyone had seen this revelation.
The sailor with the bayonet, who had not been warned that this would be part of the proceeding, backed away, shocked, and Arbuthnot stood quickly, punched Merton in the jaw, and dove over the side of the ship into the water.
After a day of scrubbing and painting, alone in this empty building, the boiler raging and filling the school with heat, I’ve retreated to my corner of the attic with a volume of Walter Scott, a thermos of coffee, and my map that is almost done. I’ll draw until I’m too tired, and then read until it’s time to go home. This is the closest I’ll ever get to being a buccaneer.
Piracy was a dangerous enterprise by the time Clarice Morgan Arbuthnot hoisted the black flag, and her run as an outlaw was expectedly short. “Avenging Clarice” the sailors called her, and she was driven by vengeance.
Family legend has it that after Clarice dove from the Dolphin she swam to a small fishing boat anchored off the coast and forced the old man who was casting nets to take her back to Toulon. There she dropped him off 50 yards from shore, turned the small boat around, and sailed south until after dark, when she met a fishing sloop.
Armed only with the old man’s cleaning knife, she took the sloop, tossing overboard anyone unwilling to follow her orders, commandeering the crew, and sailing on in search of greater prizes.
Clarice Arbuthnot, born to a poor family and unwilling to accept the path her gender and social standing laid out before her, shaved her hair, rubbed dirt on her face, and took to the sea as a means of escape as much as adventure. Her time as a sailor, inhabiting the role of a boy and growing into the life of a man, had taught her that society knew about as much about appropriate destiny as a codfish does geometry. She took this certainty and a daring few would acknowledge in a woman her age to everything she did, from the navy to piracy.
Her ascent went on for weeks, trading the sloop for a cutter, the cutter for a carrack, and finally the carrack for the Miranda, the ship she would sail until she left the sea.
That pirate spirit has run through many in my family, though I suspect that it skipped a generation in me. The closest I’ve come to any kind of buccaneering is my name -I’m told inspired by Scott’s story, a favorite of my grandmother, whose copy of the book sits next to me now in the makeshift hideaway I’ve carved for myself here above the stage. That, and the day I buried treasure out back.
But for so many in my family tree the spirit of adventure loomed large. That spirit led my family from England to the Hebrides, from there to Nova Scotia, and then across Canada until my great grandmother decided to come south to the plains of the United States.
But Kansas was no home for a lineage as tied to the sea as mine, and my grandmother, Mary St. More, the most swashbuckling of them all, trundled up my mother and her sisters and took the train from Topeka to Cascade Locks, where she disembarked and made a home, cooking meals for the men of the Burlington Northern Railroad.
Grandma Mary, a widow who remarried a fisherman from Astoria named August St. More, was the genesis of my own name, Clement, inspired by a character from Walter Scott’s The Pirate. She read and reread Scott, and was the first to tell me about Admiral, then pirate, Clarence Morgan Arbuthnot riding the same waves off Shetland, and the first to broaden my eyes with Clarence’s transformation into Avenging Clarice Morgan Arbuthnot, a pirate hero with a career too brief to make it into any of the histories.
As short as it was, the life of Avenging Clarice was filled with luck, daring, and profound profit.
My mother and grandmother told me more stories of the Miranda than I could fit in this journal, stories of Clarice sailing around the horn of Africa, winning prizes in the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Tatar Strait. Legends have her traveling to Australia, pirating off the coast of Tasmania, and returning to the British Isles heavy with treasure.
Among those stories, and keeping with the moniker attached to her name, Clarice found vengeance when she met again Captain Merton and the Dolphin.
The story is short. Sighting her former ship, Clarice sailed close, aimed every cannon at the Dolphin, and sank her without bothering to board. It was unusual for a pirate not to want plunder, but for Clarice revenge was treasure enough.
The new year brings no relief to my broken insides or my worry about the future. My only hope is that when she is old enough Mary will find this journal, follow it to the map, and dig up enough to see her through. I’ll be long dead by then, buried deeper than that mason jar, and she will have long outgrown her cow puppet. I wonder if she’ll keep it and remember me.
Clarice retired to Beàrnaraigh, a place as remote as her heart had become. Alone after the wreck of the Miranda, a story I will not record here, she wanted nothing more than to be alone with her cats, grow herbs and vegetables, and write occasional verse. Family legend describes her retiring to the island and being thought of as something of a witch. Her jewels, coins, and trinkets must have purchased her some forgiveness from the locals.
And here, I suppose my family’s story should end. This old woman in a stone hut on the edge of the world is hardly a likely wellspring for a line of Arbuthnots, and yet she was.
My mother, and her mother, and her mother before her tell the story that the turning point came in late 1730 when Clarice, alone and avenged, was visited by a cousin from London who had been looking after Peter the Wild Boy, a failed pursuit, and was traveling Scotland following a series of deaths in his family and inner circle.
Family stories don’t say much about Dr. Arbuthnot, but it’s after his visit to Beàrnaraigh that Clarice was seen in the company of a young boy who she raised as her own. It is from Clarice’s boy that my own last name has been handed down, and with it the waning treasures of Avenging Clarice.
It’s cold today, almost too cold to write. I battled the boiler in the morning, but by nine o’clock Mrs. Peer sent the children home before leaving herself, and now I’m alone in a big school uncertain if I’ll see February, let alone spring.
My stomach hurts again, worse than it has, and I’ve stopped going to the doctor. He doesn’t have any answers anyway.
But I need to finish Clarice’s story, at least the part of it I know, even the crazy part, and leave it and the map for my Mary.
I’ll stay snug here in my attic for a while. Too tired to write much more today, I’ll read my grandmother’s copy of The Pirate and imagine that I could breathe in the fresh air of the Scottish coast. There are worse ways to spend a snowy Oregon day.
The strangest part of Clarice’s story, and one of many curious incidents to be sure, is the grail.
It may not be a true story, tales from so long ago so often aren’t, but as it was told to me, and from Arbuthnot to Arbuthnot over the years, Clarice was sailing the Miranda off the coast of Spain when she met a ship sailing under no flag. A saggy sloop, barnacles on its hull, sails frayed, it slugged through the Bay of Biscay as if a thousand years old.
At first she doubted the value of boarding the ancient vessel, it looked so poor, but her sailors were restless, and a good captain knows the value of busy hands, so she created an adventure with a cry of havoc, a flashing of her sword, and the promise that the first to spot gold on the rickety tub would have the captain’s share of chocolate, a delicacy they’d plundered from a French trader the fortnight before.
The pirates were surprised by the reception they received when they swung over to the ship. A bevy of blunderbuss spat nails and metal scraps at them, and two dozen men dressed in flowing black rushed at them with curved swords. The battle was fierce and the crew of the Miranda cut in half, but experienced pirates, they won in the end.
Clarice, bleeding from a wounded ear and scowling through her bloodied mouth, now missing teeth, bent over the captain of the sloop. Her crew saw the captain, an old man with an enormous white beard now stained with blood, prone on the deck, stretch his face near hers and whisper something that widened her eyes.
She squinted at him. Spat blood, And promptly ordered her men to throw him into the sea.
She then told her sailors to empty the hold, ordered her cabin boy to prepare to torch the sloop, and strode into the captain’s cabin alone. When she emerged, a canvas sack in her hand, she nodded to a pair of pirates to clear the cabin of anything of value, tucked the bag in her belt, and returned to the Miranda.
She described her prize from the captain’s cabin as “the cup,” and as it was passed down from generation to generation every mother noticed that it resembled nothing more than the depictions of Waugh or Rossetti of the holy grail.
Every baby born to an Arbuthnot had her or his first sip from the cup. No one could prove that they lived any longer or healthier lives because of it, but Clarice is rumored to have seen her 110th birthday, and with me as the exception, Arbuthnots through history have lived robustly into old age.
Is this cup I’ll leave for Mary the one from Christian legend? Cleverer than I am, she may find out when she digs it up with the mason jar of treasure I put into the ground in the fall.
The sun came out today, welcome relief after a February of snow and rain. Spring isn’t here, but it’s close, and the children are bustling with energy and happy to be outside under the sun once again.
One, a boy of six or seven, caught me today after classes let out and asked if I’d unlock the music room so he could practice his trumpet. It’s against the rules, of course, but Mr. Gillmore had gone home, and I could see what it meant to the boy. “Morton,” I told him, “someday your music will move the world.” He smiled at my innocent fib.
It was my grandmother Mary who moved our family to Oregon, where she raised my mother and her three sisters. Aunt Molly is dead now, Aunt Beatrice locked up in Salem, and Aunt Maggie is somewhere far, far away, living in a country where the sun always shines. That’s all my mother will say about Aunt Maggie, but I imagine that my Mary will want to know more, and once I’m gone I know mother will tell her.
Spring is almost here. My coughing is getting worse.
The map. I’ve been working on it since before I started this journal. I’d thought to leave it here for Mary, or maybe even stow it at our house, but houses change hands and schools are forever, so instead I’ve put it here on campus where she can find it when the time is right.
I went back to Dr. Boersema yesterday hoping he would tell me something that I knew he could not. What he said instead was that I needed to tell Mrs. Peer that I was leaving work, set right my affairs, and prepare to say goodbye to Mary and my mother.
I tried drinking from the cup when I got home yesterday. It didn’t work, of course. Perhaps I don’t have the magic words. Perhaps there aren’t any.
What is real is the mason jar of gold coins and gems and such that I buried before the ground froze back in December. When Mary finds that, as small as it is in comparison to Avenging Clarice Morgan Arbuthnot’s treasure, she can buy something nice, or go somewhere warm.
Finished The Pirate. I guess that means I can go soon.
Avenging Clarice is in my dreams. Her life ended on her terms, comfortably ensconced in a warm hut by the sea on the edge of Scotland, visited often by the boy who was her son and later by his children, my ancestors.
I wonder if Mary will have memories of me, maybe playing with her and her cow puppet.
Maybe it’s Walter Scott in my head, or grandma Mary’s stories, or the reminder that my name comes from The Pirate, but as I finish these pages -and my own story- I leave one last adventure for her on her way to the map. She is a girl of adventure, my Mary. I can see that in her now, even as young as she is. She is the great granddaughter of another Mary, whose spirit I see in her.
How then I hope she’ll appreciate this challenge, knowing at the end is her reward.