The French Blue

Chapter 1



Letter Atall walnut case with long slender drawers was set against a whitewashed wall in the first floor shop of the building my father shared with a sail maker. In it was stored my father’s stock of maps including his meticulously hand-drawn copies of the work of famous Dutch cartographers: Fredrick De Wit, Van Ceulen, Ortelius and the great Gerardus Mercator himself.

My father was a cartographer. He made and sold maps and nautical charts. Paris was not as it is now. It was the second largest city in Christendom. but it was still a medieval town contained within its ancient walls. The Streets were unpaved open sewers and there were no street lamps.

He drew maps of exotic places. Yet all my father knew of the world he had learned secondhand from studying the masters and from information picked up from mariners, merchants, scholars, travelers, and other wanderers who visited the shop. Vienna, Persia, India—the mere mention of these names instilled a deep longing in my breast.

“Father,” I asked, “do you not pine to see the wonderful places you draw on your maps”?

He only shrugged and smiled affectionately. “Jean-Baptiste, I am too old to have such dreams. Dreams are for young men. I have you, your brothers, and your mother to look after.”

“But, Father, don’t you, didn’t you ever dream of traveling to these far off places, even when you were young”?

My father turned pensive then, his eyes took on a far off look, and his lips curled into a little smile. He ruffled my hair. “Tell me, Jean-Baptiste, where will you get the money for all this travel? How will you make your living”?

“I don’t know, Papa,” I said haltingly, “perhaps … perhaps I will become a merchant and buy and sell jewels and other precious and wonderful things.”

Marcel, the sail maker’s son, was my best friend. We would dream together by the hour tracing the routes of our make believe voyages to exotic places that were, for us, only names that appeared on my father’s maps.

One subject in particular interested my father: the Terra Australis Incognita, the great unknown southern land. It is a land supposed to exist at the very bottom of the world. Ptolemy first postulated its existence, and every map of the world made since shows it. The great Ortelius made a chart in 1570 that shows a well-defined group of islands southeast of the Spice Islands and further south, an unknown land that girdles the world. How did he know of this land? Ortelius, like my father, never traveled. My uncle Melchior, who was the great man’s apprentice, tried to wheedle from him the source of his information, but he never explained how he obtained this knowledge.

Some have claimed to have visited the Terra Australis, usually in a ship blown off course by the savage gales that stalk the southern oceans, but none truly knows its size or extent. A Dutchman named Tasman has since published a map of the southern ocean showing half a continent or a large island labeled “Australis,” but Tasman’s rendering differs markedly from that of Ortelius, and who knows how accurate it is? My father spoke of this mysterious land often. He was obsessed with it. It was his great ambition to be the first to describe it with accuracy.

One who claimed to have visited this southern land was a Portuguese sea captain, Santos by name, who found his way to my father’s shop. My father quickly took the unusual step of inviting him to dinner.

The captain raised his fingers to his lips and kissed them. “Senhora, this stew, it is ambrosia.”

My mother’s face flushed. She was a gruff woman who regarded all foreigners with deep suspicion, but she was inordinately proud of her cooking. Before the end of the meal, Captain Santos had her laughing and simpering like a girl. The captain had found her weak spot, and he shamelessly exploited it.

As soon as supper was finished, my father ushered our guest to a pair of chairs fronting the hearth. After I finished my chores, I crept softly over to a wood bench set in the corner of the hearth, near enough to hear the conversation. The night was chill, and the air was unusually damp. The fire in the hearth danced and the bricks threw off comforting warmth. I arranged myself—all legs, knees, and elbows—with my back against the bricks. As heat seeped into my body, I settled myself quietly to listen.

Affecting to ignore me, my father offered our guest a brandy and took down two of his long clay pipes from the mantle. Soon a pungent haze of blue smoke formed a magical aura that surrounded us in the dancing firelight. Glasses were refilled; the captain sat back in his chair, hoisted his high sea boots onto the hearth, crossed his legs, and commenced telling his tale.

“You have asked me, senhor, about the Terra Australis. I believe that I have visited this unknown land. In fact, I am sure of it. I will tell you my tale, all of it true, I swear on the soul of my mother, and you shall be my judge.”