"I, Walter Crofter, being of sound mind. . . ." Bah, this is garbage! I
tossed my quill on the parchment sitting in front of me. People may
question my sanity, but they should hear the whole story before judging
me. I’m sitting here, now, at the age of 67, trying to write this down
and figure out how to tell everything. I don’t know if I'll ever get
it right, though. Too many secrets to go around. However, this is my
last chance to offer the truth before I die. The doctors say it's
malaria, yet I'll be fine. Perhaps. But if the malaria doesn't kill me,
my guilt indeed will. Maybe if people know the facts surrounding my
life, everyone will have a better understanding.
I dipped the tip in the inkwell again, and wrote:
I was born September 2, 1588, and named Walter. I didn’t belong in
this Crofter family, who were storekeepers in London and not farmers as
our surname might indicate to those who study this sort of thing. My
parents were courteous and even obsequious to our patrons. Yet they
received little or no respect. The ladies came to us to buy their
groceries or the fabric for their dresses, but as seemly as they
comported themselves, and some even called my father 'friend,' it was
not out of regard for him. I was forced to run. Well, "forced" might put
too harsh a point on it, like that of a sword, but others can judge for
By the time I reached the age of 12, I'd found another family that was
more "me". They weren’t rich, but they were comfortable. The parents
had several children, including a girl my age who was named Anna. Within
two years, we had come to know each other quite well, and were getting
to know each other even better. Her father caught us getting too close
to knowing each other better yet, and showed up at my parents' house
with a musket in his hand, telling them if I ever came near his daughter
again, he'd use it on me--and then on them.
I paused to dip the pen and wipe my brow. Even though I was wearing a
light cotton shirt, it was bloody hot in early August in Cadaques. My
wife, Maria, entered the room and looked at my perspiring face and what
I had just written. Between fits of laughter, she smiled at me with wide
lips and said, "You can't possibly write this. You're not the only boy a
doting father ever had to chase away. Nobody cares about this sort of
"It will at least give a pulse to this writing," I replied. "It's too
boring to say I left because I was mismatched with my own family, so
much so that I was positive someone had switched me at birth. Or that I
thought I was ready for more in life than what I could find at home.
Nobody would read that, not even me."
"I agree, so tell the story that really means something. All of it." She
sighed softly and placed the parchment she had been reading on the desk
in front of me and kissed my cheek. The gleam in her eyes shed 20 years
off her age and reminded me of a much gentler time. God, how much I love
I said, "Before I met you, I spent my life like a square peg trying to
fit in a round hole. I’m just trying to make my story more
"I’ve heard the accounts of your life before you met me. Or I should
say found me. It was anything but boring. So, if you insist on including
in the story lines like those you just wrote, make sure they're the only
ones. If you don't, I'll consider adding my own material." She winked.
"You know I’ve had good sources."
She turned and walked away, laughing loudly as I called after her, "Yes,
I dipped the quill and put it to parchment again.
In my earliest days, I remember my father, Geoff, being a bit forceful
with other people. I also recall my brother Gerald, nearly five years my
senior, and myself being happy. Or at least as contented as two boys
could be who were growing up in the late 1500s in England, and working
every day since their seventh birthdays. It was a time when boys were
earning coin as soon as they could lift or carry things. The money could
never be for themselves, however, but for the parents to help pay the
Father lived as a crofter should. He was an upright man and sold
vegetables off a cart like his grandfather did, and he also dabbled in
selling fine fabric for the ladies of status.
One afternoon, when I was eight years old, my brother came home and got
into a heated debate with my father about something. When I ran to see
what was the matter, they hushed around me, so I never got the full gist
of the argument. But whatever it was about, it was serious, and the
bickering continued behind my back for five straight days. When I awoke
on the morning of the sixth day, Gerald was no longer at home. And he
never came back.
Soon afterwards, my father lost enthusiasm for his business and became
generally passive. I assumed this was because of Gerald's leaving, and
only on occasion would I see flashes of my dad's former self.
At the start of my tenth year, our family moved closer to London. We
rented the bottom floor of a three-story building in which several
families lived in the upper floors. My father said we relocated because
he needed to be closer to more business opportunities. But my mom didn't
believe he'd made the right decision, since he was now selling food out
of a cart and not inside a storefront. One night, she greeted him at the
door when he came home. She was wearing a frown and a dress that had
seen better days.
"Did you bring in any decent money?" she asked him before he had time to
take off his coat.
"I told you, it will take some time. It's not easy to make good money
"Especially when you let the ladies walk all over you."
"I know, I know. But what am I to do when they aren't running up to me
to buy what I'm selling?"
"You at least bring home some food for us?" My father had carried in a
bag under his arm.
"It's not much, a few carrots and some celery." He handed her the bag.
"What about meat?"
"We're not ready for meat yet."
"That’s true enough," my mother said. "But you should at least try to
feed your family. Walter's growing, and so are our other children."
"Leave me be, woman. I'm doing the best I can for now." He sat in his
chair, leaned his head against the wall, and fell asleep.
That same debate played out between my parents for the next two years.
Except for the summer months, when food was plentiful; then the
arguments subsided. But for the rest of the year, especially during the
winter, the same discussions about money continued on a daily basis, and
they were often quite heated. I lost two younger siblings during those
two years. One during my tenth winter and the other during my eleventh
winter. Neither of the children was older than six months. I always
suspected hunger as the primary cause of their deaths.
Just before my twelfth birthday, my father started taking me with him
when he went to work. My closest living sibling was nearly six and not
feeling well most of the time, and the family needed the money I could
bring in by helping my father, who was bland and wishy-washy,
particularly when selling fabrics. I had no idea what he was like
before, but in my mind his lethargy explained why our family was barely
making ends meet. Our lives had become much harder since Gerald left,
and part of me blamed him. I'm going to thrash him if I ever see him
again and teach him a lesson about family responsibility.
It took me less than a week to realize that the people my father was
dealing with, as with those in Bristol, had no respect for him. They
regularly talked down to him. Rather than asking the price, they
regularly paid what they wanted to pay. And he took it without a
quibble. And when he tried to curry favor, he would never get it. His
customers looked upon him as a whipping board, at least that's how it
seemed to me.
I remember when we got home in the dark after a long day of work in late
November, and my mother started in on Dad.
"Well? Have you got the money for me to buy food tomorrow?"
"A little. Here." He fished a guinea from his pocket.
"A guinea? That's it? That won’t feed us for a day. You've got to
start working harder. With what you earn and what I bring in sewing
clothes, we can barely pay the rent, and there is nothing left over to
heat this place. And it's going to get colder, Geoff."
"I know, Mildred, I know. I’m trying as hard as I can."
"You haven’t worked hard since Sir Walter Raleigh left favor. You
can't wait for him forever."
"He'll get favor back. And when he does, I’ll be right there helping
him. You’ll see, we’ll be fine again."
She groaned. I was aware that this was not the first time my mother had
heard this from my father. It's great talk from a man trying to get
ahead. But after several years of the same song, it loses its
credibility. She had enjoyed respectability in the early days when my
father grabbed the coattails of the then revered Sir Walter Raleigh, and
it was hard not having this luxury now. She hadn’t planned to be
satisfied with being a shopkeeper’s wife, and she wasn't even that, at
present. She changed the subject, not her tone.
"I overheard the ladies gossiping on the street today. They were talking
about seeing Gerald's likeness on a 'Wanted' poster. A 'Wanted' poster,
Geoff. There’s a warrant out for our son’s arrest. What are we going
to do? What can we do?"
My father stared at the wall. "Nothing. He's an adult. He'll have to
work it out for himself."
I watched quietly as my mother cried herself to sleep, her head on my
father's shoulder. No matter how bad things got, they loved each other
and wanted their lives to be better, the way I was often told they were
before my birth. Maybe this is why I wanted to get away from them as
soon as I could.
I didn't usually watch my parents fall asleep. But, that night I did.
And, after they were sound asleep, I left. I had no plans. I didn't know
where I was going. I just left in middle of what was a dark, chilly
I could hear the dogs barking around me as I scurried along the
roadside. It felt as if they were yelping at me and coming towards me. I
began running, faster than I'd ever sprinted in my life, my speed
assisted by my sense of fear. Every time I heard a dog, or an owl, or
any other animal, or even my own heavy breathing, my pace increased
until I was exhausted and had to stop. This continued throughout the
night until the sky started to lighten and I found a grove of
overhanging bushes and crawled inside for some sleep.
I scavenged for food during the day and swiped a few pieces of fruit
from merchants along the way. This became my means of subsistence. I
left a coin when I could, as I'd pick up an occasional odd job, but I
was always out of money. I also tried begging, and while I did survive
on the street, I found life difficult. Yet for nearly two years I stayed
with this vagabond existence before deciding to make my way to the sea.
Too bad my internal compass wasn’t any good. Turns out I was moving
more to the west than to the south. But before long I was on the shores
of Bristol. And my life changed forever.
Excerpted from "I, Walter" by Mike Hartner. Copyright © 2013 by Mike Hartner. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.