Eleana Racksea was somebody you would see regularly if you frequented the quays and wharves of Port Naain. She painted. Now this city boasts a lot of painters, some of them good, some of them ‘experimental’. To be fair to Eleana she fell firmly into the former category. She did not produce bizarre daubs and then claim that the only reason you couldn’t grasp their artistic significance was your abysmal ignorance.
Eleana painted proper pictures. When you looked at them you knew exactly what they depicted, and even in her street scenes you could often recognise individuals. Thus in one picture one could see, walking along the wharf, Chesit Quince. It could only be him, immaculate in powder blue knee britches and spotless white shirt which had lace cascading down the front. Also nobody else is likely to carry an anvil under his arm.
Eleana was the daughter of a sea captain. She was apparently conceived, and certainly was born, on shipboard. At the age of fifteen she brought her father’s brig, ‘Mercy’, into Port Naain, with her father and the ship’s master standing back out of the way and letting her give the correct orders at the correct time.
Matrimony and child bearing brought her ashore. As somebody who had lived on ships as a small child, she wanted something a little safer for her own children. Still when her children were capable of swimming, they too took to the sea.
But by that time Eleana had discovered the joy of painting. Every day would see her out with easel and paints. I have seen her camped on Stonecutter Wharf, braving the driving rain under an improvised awning of canvas; as she painted the pile drivers hammering in the new timbers. I’ve seen her sitting in the back of a cart, painting the shore combers on the sands of the estuary as they exchanged banter with the pilot on board a boat he was bringing up the channel.
She sometimes exhibited her pictures, but often she’d just send a note to a ship’s captain, telling him she’d painted his beloved vessel as it passed the Nightbell Point Battery. Such was her gift at catching the essence of a ship with shift brush strokes, no captain has every turned down the chance to purchase such a picture.
Indeed, when her father retired, he purchased a pleasant cottage overlooking the Battery on Nightbell Point. He added a tower to it, and at the top of the tower he created a room with huge windows overlooking the sea. As he grew old and frail, Eleana spent more time with him and together they would spend many hours in the tower. Eleana would paint and her father would sit, watch her at work, and share stories of his time at sea.
Because his eyes weren’t what they had been, he had purchased a remarkably powerful telescope, and Eleana would often use that as she painted. Thus she saw and painted old Calford rowing out to a smuggler anchored off the point. The way she captured the evening light on the water was nothing short of magical.
I often wondered at the relationship Eleana had with those she worked among. Her father had been well respected. Her husband was also held in high esteem. But frankly Eleana was adored. There were seamen who swore blind that no ship she had painted had ever gone down, as long as the painting was displayed in the captain’s cabin. Certainly I’ve seen sailors who spotted her working on the wharf. Inevitably they would walk across, view her work, and she would chat to them as she painted.
Few people knew as much about what was going on in the seafaring world. Whilst others might know more about the financial details, Eleana knew which captains were struggling, which ships were limping on, desperate for a refit nobody could afford. She also knew the ‘rotten apples,’ those for whom the law was there for the observance of others. Smugglers she had no problem with. A smuggler is merely a sailor who has realised that port authorities and excise officials are important and busy people, far too important and busy to have their time wasted by the scruffy and unregenerate. So almost as a gesture of respect, the humble smuggler will actively avoid contact with these people, thus helping them cope with the burdens of their high office. In her experience a smuggler would think nothing of sailing to the assistance of another ship experiencing difficulties.
The vermin she abhorred are those whose trade was at the expense of sailors. Not merely pirates, but those owners who overloaded and over-insured their ships and sent them out hoping they would sink. Her painting, ‘The Drowning Posts,’ showed a pirate crew tied to the drowning posts, waiting for the rising tide to claim them. But the faces of the doomed crew were actually those of well-known usurers of dubious reputation. The announcement by the usurer Sinian Var that he had purchased the picture to hang in the Sinecurists Council Chamber was enough to provoke a wave of righteous indignation within the collective bosoms of the authorities. Certainly matters improved for a while, and the watch has been known to take an interest in this area.
Still, between ourselves, I personally think she was more effective when she was acting quietly on her own. After all, if you have a lady who has innumerable rough but devoted admirers, you have a lady with considerable influence. Thus if Eleana was to mention in casual conversation to a leading seaman that ‘Usurer Baltin’ was dipping his toes into murky water, the leading seaman would hang on her every word. If Eleana was to mention exactly where Usurer Baltin lived, where he drank with his friends and where his mistress lived, it was entirely possible that the seaman would gather a group of colleagues and they would go and suggest to Usurer Baltin that he mend his ways.
It is surprising how many Usurers turned over a new leaf, especially if the moral lecture was delivered from a rowing boat bobbing next to the usurer when she or he was chained to a drowning post. It has to be confessed that occasionally the seamen got their timing wrong, but taken in the round the death of the occasional unethical usurer had to be set against the innumerable seamen whose lives had been saved.
If you wish to learn more of Port Naain, you might like to read
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We touch on fire-fighting, lady writers, solstice celebrations and more. Port Naain. All human life is there, and it’s documented with humour and acute observation.”