Remember Me(10)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter ten

As Will lowered the sack of rice into the hiding place under the hut floor, he thought he must be in love. Why else would he be going along with this madness of Mary’s, when in another month he’d be a free man?

He sat back on his haunches for a moment after he’d put the false floor back in place. Anxious as he was about the plan, he couldn’t help but smile. Whether or not he was a free man, it would be sweet revenge for all the injustices and humiliations to sail out of the harbour in the Captain’s cutter, taking not just Mary and the children, but his friends too.

The Dutch East Indies sounded a fine place to Will, a tropical paradise where a man could live like a king. Of course it was a huge distance, mostly uncharted, and daunting that no one apart from Captain Cook had ever sailed there from here. But in a strange way the danger made the voyage even more attractive to him, the kind legends were made of. Will wanted to be talked of in awed tones even after his death.

It was mid-February, and Will knew they must leave by the end of March or risk running into violent autumn gales. But there was still so much to do, including asking Detmer Smith for assistance.

Mary was with Detmer now, delivering back his clean washing, and no doubt she was charming him for all she was worth. Will didn’t mind her doing that, it was necessary, but he didn’t like the way she was trying to take complete control of the plan.

She had insisted he shouldn’t ask his friends to join them until the last minute. She had to know what hell it was not to be able to confide in them, he wanted a man to talk to about it, not just a woman. Mary said one of them might forget himself when he’d been drinking and start talking. They all had women and Mary’s reasoning was that these women might peach if they knew they were going to be left behind. So all Will could do for now was sit it out, get the stores together, and work on Detmer and Bennelong.

Will still often saw Bennelong when he was out fishing. He was naked again, and proudly showed Will new scars he’d acquired in fights. He remembered quite a bit of the English he’d learned while in captivity, and with that, and signs, Will found he could communicate with him quite adequately.

Back last November Bennelong had returned to the settlement, wearing the clothes he’d originally been given by Captain Phillip. This appeared to be a sign that he was willing to be an interpreter, as long as no one tried to chain him up again, and so the Captain gave him a hut to live in and food from the stores.

In Will’s opinion, Captain Phillip had bitten off more than he could chew with Bennelong. The man’s real interests were fighting and women; all he wanted from the settlement was the drink the newcomers had introduced him to. Already he’d made a nuisance of himself by getting drunk and wild at Government House, and if Phillip thought that by giving him a house he’d become his lackey, he was mistaken.

Will really liked Bennelong, for his childlike enthusiasm, his wide grin and his curiosity about white men. When he came out fishing with Will he’d taught him some of his language and customs.

It was curious that in Bennelong’s culture, if someone wanted a woman they usually hit her with a club and carried her off. Remaining faithful to just one woman seemed absurd to them, yet Bennelong revered Mary. His face lit up when he saw her, he was very anxious to please her, and Will was fairly certain that if Bennelong ever saw him with another woman, he would fight him.

Mary had been right in surmising that many of the natives knew a great deal about navigating the waters round here. They might only have the flimsiest canoes, but the skilful way they manoeuvred them and the speeds they reached were incredible. Bennelong had also shown Will ways of finding water, and which plants made good eating. Will had no doubt he would be only too happy to swim out to the cutter at night and tow her to the shore for their party to get aboard. He had no real loyalty to any of the officers, but he had to Mary and Will.

Although he knew he could count on Bennelong, Detmer was going to be more tricky.

Will and the Dutchman had a great deal in common. They were both big and blue-eyed, with fair hair; both were gregarious men who made friends easily. They were also both, for different reasons, out on a limb.

Since the settlement got back to full rations, many of the original convicts seemed to have forgotten that Will was the one who had saved their lives with his fish. As for the new arrivals, many of them were jealous of his freedom to come and go as he pleased, and often made sarcastic comments about him being the officers’ ‘boy’.

Detmer was isolated because he hadn’t played by the rules with Captain Phillip. There was short weight on the stores he’d brought in, which made the officers distrust him, and now he was driving a very hard bargain with the charter of his ship. Phillip desperately needed it to send some of his men back to England, and Detmer was being foxy. As a result, he was ostracized by the officers, and sharp little Mary, always quick to take advantage of an opportunity, took it.

At first it was a few smiles, a little conciliatory chat, an offer to do his laundry, and finally to share supper with her and Will at their hut. Will didn’t object to Detmer coming when he was there; he was good company, and he always brought a bottle of rum with him. But Will was aware that people were beginning to talk about Mary chatting to Detmer on the wharf and sometimes going out to his ship.

Only today someone had suggested she was ‘making up’ to the man. Will was jealous by nature and he didn’t like the idea of his wife alone in any man’s company. Yet he knew Mary was far more likely to get Detmer to agree to help them than he was, so he supposed he would have to turn a blind eye as to how she accomplished it.

Will got up from the floor and went out of the hut. Mary was just coming along, with Emmanuel in her arms and Charlotte skipping beside her.

Will thought they made a pretty picture, Mary with her black curls all around her face, Emmanuel chubby and fair-haired in her arms, and Charlotte, a tiny version of her mother, kicking up the sand with her bare feet. The Lady Juliana had brought cloth from England. Mary had managed to talk Tench into getting her a length and she’d made a dress for herself and things for the children. Will knew that by his mother’s standards back home, Mary’s blue striped dress was crudely made, but after seeing her and so many other women just in rags for the last two years, he thought she looked very fetching.

‘You were a long time,’ he said reprovingly.

‘We got talking,’ she said, and nodded pointedly in Charlotte’s direction, her way of saying that what she had to report mustn’t be in front of the child.

Mary heated up some water on the fire and made them a cup of sweet tea, then sat down to nurse Emmanuel. As soon as Charlotte had wandered off a little way, she beckoned Will to come nearer.

‘I’ve asked Detmer to help us,’ she whispered.

‘You told him our plan?’ Will was shocked that she’d done this without him being there.

‘The time was right,’ she said with a shrug. ‘He’d had a row with Phillip again, and I knew it was the moment.’

‘What did he say?’ Will got a chill down his spine when he thought what would happen to him if Detmer peached.

Mary didn’t answer for a moment. The truth was that Detmer’s first reaction had been to laugh at the plan. He also said he couldn’t see why Will wanted to risk his and his family’s lives when he had everything set up here. Mary had to plead with him, explain how she was afraid Will would abandon her when his time was up. She even implied that she was willing to do anything for Detmer in exchange for his help.

His expression was imprinted on her mind. Lips set in a cynical straight line, yet laughter in his eyes. He was seated on a coil of rope in the bows of his ship while she was standing at the rail, half turned away from him because she wasn’t quite brave enough to look him in the eye. He was wearing a clean white shirt and tan-coloured breeches that clung to his body like a second skin, his long fair hair blowing in the breeze.

He was similar to Will in looks, sharing the same colouring, height and size, though he was probably as much as ten years older. But Detmer had a polished look which Will could never hope to emulate. His skin was a golden-brown, his hair silky, and his teeth were still very good, white and even. His heavily accented English was attractive too – whatever he said he sounded as if he was trying to woo her.

‘Come on, tell me,’ Will exclaimed. ‘Charlotte will be back in a moment and we can’t speak of it in front of her.’ Charlotte was very talkative now at three and she was inclined to repeat things she’d overheard.

‘He said he would help us,’ Mary said. The truth of it was that Detmer had asked, ‘How far are you prepared to go to gain my assistance?’

‘Why should he want to help us?’ Will’s eyes narrowed with suspicion.

Mary shrugged. ‘Because he likes us. Because he wants to get back at Captain Phillip. Because I was persuasive. Take your pick.’

‘Did you tell him what we need?’

Mary leaned closer to Emmanuel so Will wouldn’t see her blushing. She had been shameless, just as she’d been with Lieutenant Graham on the Dunkirk. But what made it worse in her mind was that she actually wanted Detmer, and if she hadn’t had the two children with her, she might very well have let him have his way with her, then and there.

‘Yes, I told him, and he’ll sell us a sextant and a compass,’ she said. ‘And he’ll throw in a couple of old muskets, some ammunition and a water cask. You can agree a price with him for those.’

‘What about a chart?’

‘That too, he’s going to look it out. He’ll need to talk that over with you.’

‘So I have got some role in this then?’ Will said sarcastically.

Mary wanted to slap him for always wanting to be the big man. If she’d sat back and let him try to organize this escape, he’d be in irons by now because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. Even Detmer, who had only known Will for a relatively short time, had been worried about his reputation for having a loose tongue. But she had to hide her irritation. Everything depended on keeping Will sweet.

‘You have the biggest role,’ she said, reaching out to stroke his face in a display of affection. ‘You are the navigator. Detmer says only a good one like you could manage to sail through the reefs without holing the boat.’

Will was appeased at that. ‘I’ll whip one of the new seine nets tonight,’ he said. ‘They won’t miss it.’

Mary looked to see where Charlotte was, and, satisfied she was out of earshot, making mud pies, she continued, ‘We ought to decide now who we’re going to ask to go with us.’

‘James Martin, Jamie Cox and Samuel Bird, of course,’ Will said. ‘They’re my mates, been with them right from the Dunkirk.’

Mary nodded. She had expected Will would want them. She wasn’t too pleased about Samuel Bird, he was such a gloomy man, but then she hadn’t tried very hard to get to know him, put off by his red hair and pale eyelashes. ‘Yes, but we did think William Moreton would be a good choice too, he knows about navigation.’

Will wrinkled his nose. ‘I don’t like him.’

Mary didn’t like the dark, bull-like man either. Like Will, he was a big-head, full of his own importance. But he could navigate, he was strong and able to keep his mouth shut.

‘We need another navigator,’ she said firmly. ‘You can’t do it all alone.’

‘Very well, him too, and maybe Wilf Owens and Pat Reilly.’

‘Wilf Owens is a fool,’ Mary said dismissively. ‘And Pat Reilly can’t keep his mouth shut.’

Will looked hurt. Wilf and Pat often came out fishing with him and he liked drinking with them.

‘So who do you think then?’ he snapped at her.

‘Sam Broome, Nathaniel Lilly and Bill Allen,’ she replied.

‘We can’t take that many,’ Will exclaimed in horror. ‘Besides, they aren’t our mates, they’re all from the Second Fleet. We hardly know them.’

‘We’ll need that many when we have to row,’ she insisted. ‘Besides, the boat’s big enough. And they can all handle it. What does it matter if you haven’t known them long? They are all trustworthy and capable.’

Will didn’t mind the idea of Nat and Bill. Nat was another young kid like Jamie, who hung on his every word. He looked like a cherub with his fair hair and big eyes and Will liked having him around.

They called Bill the Iron Man. When he was flogged for theft from the stores, he never cried out once, and walked away at the end of it without even wincing. Compared to most of the men here he was a real criminal, convicted of a serious assault and robbery. Common sense said he was a good choice, they’d need more tough men if they had any trouble with natives.

‘Yeah, Bill and Nat can come,’ he nodded. ‘But why Sam Broome?’ he asked, looking at Mary with suspicion. He thought the man a rum sort of cove, he kept himself to himself, didn’t like drink, and he was as skinny as a rake.

Mary had taken a liking to Sam from the day she gave him water as he lay close to death on the wharf. She had visited him in the hospital tents until he was well enough to be moved to a hut, and they had become friends. She liked his gentlemanly ways and his reserve, and it was flattering that he obviously adored her.

While no one would describe Sam as handsome – he was too thin and his sandy hair was disappearing fast – he had a strong face, and there was determination in his tawny-coloured eyes. He was also practical, a good carpenter, and steady. Mary needed him as her safety net if Will failed her.

She wished she didn’t have these qualms about Will. In many ways he was the very best of husbands. But she had to be realistic, consider every possibility. If they were to reach a safe haven, and Mary was absolutely determined that they would, she couldn’t guarantee that the success wouldn’t go to Will’s head. He liked the drink and it made him belligerent. She had to have some sort of backup plan for that eventuality; she didn’t intend to risk her own life and those of her two children for a life that might turn out worse than anything she’d endured so far. She knew Sam Broome would step into the breach if need be.

‘Sam has skills we might need,’ she said firmly. ‘He’s a carpenter, remember. He’s also a calm, steady man who will get on well with everyone else.’

Will made a kind of snort, implying he didn’t agree, but he said nothing further.

Over the following days, Will asked each of the chosen men to the hut to put his plan to them singly. For now, he wasn’t telling any of them who else was in on it. Each one of them was wildly enthusiastic, grateful to be included, and made promises to bring things for the stores. Mary sat back while Will talked his way through it, never interrupting once. It wasn’t until each man was about to leave the hut that she gave them her warning.

‘You must swear that you won’t breathe a word of this to anyone,’ she insisted fiercely. ‘Not your best friend, your woman, no one. For if you do and our plan is discovered, I swear I’ll kill you.’

Bill Allen and William Moreton thought that it was crazy of Will to take a woman and two small children along on such a potentially hazardous escape bid, but even though they were both the kind who normally spoke up when they didn’t agree with anything, neither of them dared to with Mary sitting there. When they heard the passion in her voice and saw the chilling determination in her grey eyes, they soon realized that she was no sleeping partner. Without her spelling it out, they knew this was her idea, her plan, and she meant exactly what she said.

Towards the end of February the secret store under the floor of the hut was full of provisions. Two old muskets, ammunition, a grappling hook, various tools, cooking pots, a water cask and resin to caulk the water should the boat spring a leak were hidden in various places around the settlement. The plan was to make their escape after the Waaksamheyd had departed for England; that way there would be no other vessel left in the harbour capable of giving chase or informing anyone else that convicts had escaped.

Bennelong had readily agreed to swim out to the cutter on the chosen night and bring it in to the shore for them. There was only one thing left to do now, and that was to collect the compass and sextant from Detmer and pay him the money Will had agreed.

Will hadn’t had much problem getting his hands on money. He’d had some saved since he got here and there’d been nothing to spend it on. The rest he’d raised the same way he got the salt pork, rice and flour, by selling fish. A great many of the Marines were only too happy to buy fish, for like Will they had nothing else to spend their money on. They exchanged it for drink mostly, and the officers who ended up with the fish didn’t ask questions.

But Detmer insisted it must be Mary who paid over the money and collected the goods, saying it was much less risky. Maybe concealing the money in clean washing and collecting some more dirty clothes with the sextant and compass tucked inside was a sound idea. But Will didn’t like the way it looked to the others – he was in charge of this escape, not Mary. He was afraid that before long the other men might start thinking it was all her idea.

Will was brooding about this when he went off fishing one afternoon. Only the previous evening he’d wanted all the men to come to their hut and talk about the escape together. Mary would have none of it. She claimed that such a large gathering would be noticed, then they’d be watched more closely. She ruled that they must only ever continue to meet up in threes or fours.

Even James Martin, Will’s closest friend, agreed with Mary. It made Will sick that James would take her part rather than his.

Will was on the cutter, with six other men ordered to help him that day, and about to cast off, when Bennelong came along the wharf. He had his sister and her two children with him, along with Charlotte who often played with them. When Bennelong made signs that he wanted them all to go out on the boat, Will’s first thought was to refuse. He didn’t like having so many people aboard, and anyway he was in no mood for company. But he knew it was a good idea for Charlotte to get used to the boat, and besides, Bennelong might take offence if he refused him, and then withdraw his promise to help in the escape. He really had no choice but to agree.

It was a pleasant day, much cooler than of late, and Will’s bad mood left him once they were out in the bay. When Bennelong excitedly pointed out a quantity of seabirds hovering close to the west side of the bay, Will knew he was saying there was a large shoal of fish there.

Bennelong proved to be right, and it wasn’t long before they pulled in the seine and found it full of fish. It was the best haul they’d had in some weeks.

Will was delighted, he kept thumping Bennelong on the back and telling him what a good fellow he was.

‘Good fellow,’ Bennelong repeated with a wide grin which showed off his perfect teeth. ‘You get good fellow rum?’

‘I’ll drink some with you,’ Will laughed, and made signs to suggest they had a party. With such a good catch he’d be able to keep back a big quantity for himself, and he was in the right mood for getting drunk.

They were sailing back towards the wharf, the bottom of the boat full of wriggling fish, still laughing and congratulating each other on their good fortune, when suddenly a stiff wind came up, catching Will off his guard. The boat gathered speed, heading straight for some rocks, and Will couldn’t go about fast enough. There was a crunch, the hooks holding the sails snapped, tipping the boat up, and all at once water poured in.

If there hadn’t been so many people on the boat, Will could have dealt with it, but two of the convict men, both inexperienced, panicked, and suddenly the boat keeled right over and everyone fell out.

Will’s first thought was for Charlotte as he hit the water, but John, one of the crew, already had her in his arms. She was screaming at the shock, but seemed unhurt. Bennelong’s sister had both her two children too, clinging to her back, and with just a shout to her brother, she began to swim back to the shore with them.

‘I’ll take Charlotte,’ John yelled. ‘You get the men.’

Bennelong stayed long enough to help Will with the other five men, only two of whom could swim, then he too made off for the shore. As Will helped the floundering non-swimmers catch hold of the capsized boat, he swore to himself. He had lost the entire catch, he knew Captain Phillip was going to be very angry, and even worse, it probably meant their hope to escape in the next couple of weeks was scuppered.

As Will stayed with the boat, the other men coughing and spluttering, Bennelong reached the shore and called to some other natives. Within a few minutes they were dragging their canoes down the beach to come to the rescue. Some came straight out to the boat to take the crew to safety, others began collecting up the oars and other equipment thrown out of the cutter, and another couple of men came out with ropes, which Will secured to the hull, and they towed the boat in to the wharf.

When Will got back to the hut with Charlotte much later, he found Mary had already heard the news. He expected her to rage at him, and was ready to give as good as he got, but to his irritation she seemed more concerned about Charlotte.

She took the child from his arms and wrapped her in a blanket. ‘There, there,’ she said as Charlotte began crying again. ‘You’ll be all right once you are warm again. I’ll have to teach you to swim, won’t I?’

‘That’s right! Comfort her,’ Will spat at her. ‘Don’t think about me! I could get flogged again. As for the hope of escape, that’s gone.’

Even as he said this, Will knew he was being completely unreasonable. But to have all his hopes dashed when they were so very close to leaving was too much.

His clothes had dried quickly in the wind but he felt chilled to the bone. He knew too that many of the people who resented his freedom would take great delight in his misfortune.

‘Don’t be such a fool,’ Mary retorted, giving him a contemptuous look. ‘Why should they flog you? It was an accident.’

Her sharp words seemed to suggest to Will that she wasn’t bothered about him in any way. All the resentment which had been building up in him for some time flared up and spilled over, and he lashed out, slapping her hard across the face, knocking both her and Charlotte, who was sitting on her lap, to the floor.

‘You cold-hearted bitch,’ he yelled at her. ‘You don’t care about anything but yourself.’

Charlotte was screaming, and Mary quickly picked her up again and got to her feet. She didn’t attempt to run out of the hut, but faced Will defiantly with Charlotte in her arms.

‘I’m going to put that slap down to shock,’ she said haughtily. ‘But should you think of hitting me ever again, don’t think I’ll be so understanding a second time.’

Will had never hit a woman before, and the moment he lashed out he felt ashamed. But he wasn’t going to apologize, not when she couldn’t behave like a real woman and cry. Instead he turned on his heels and walked out of the hut.

Will came back much later, so drunk that he lurched through the door and fell flat on the floor. Mary had been lying in the dark, awake, but she didn’t get up to help him. She suspected he hadn’t come back of his own free will, but because his body had a natural homing instinct. She wondered how he had got the drink, and what secrets he’d revealed under the influence of it.

She couldn’t sleep, she felt too wretched. Will didn’t seem to have considered that when she first heard the boat had capsized, she thought Charlotte had been drowned. She didn’t know John had grabbed her for at least an hour after the event. After going through that kind of agony, a foiled escape meant little.

Yet once she knew Charlotte was safe, the hideousness of this place seemed even more pronounced. While she was waiting up on the wharf, she’d looked around her and seen it for what it really was – a shanty town, built by the sweat of men who had been dehumanized. Everything about it was ugly, from the crudeness of the buildings, the flogging triangle, the bleak, already overcrowded cemetery, to the people trapped here. There was an all-pervading stench about it, a combination of bodily wastes and rotten food. An atmosphere of hopelessness and oppression.

She could not bring her children up here. How could she fight against the squalor, the degradation, the utter despair of it? How could she teach children it was wrong to steal, when it was the only way to survive here? Or that fornication was a sin, when for most of those here it was the only small comfort they had? Nearly all the children were bastards, many of the mothers couldn’t even say with any certainty who had sired their child. In years to come these offspring might even unwittingly commit incest.

All Mary’s senses were offended by this place. She was appalled at seeing drunkenness, debauchery, laziness, disease and utter stupidity. Daily, her ears were bombarded with the most vile language and sounds of human misery. The smells nauseated her. Even touch, that most personal of the senses, was distorted here. Wood was jagged and full of splinters, what looked like soft grass was as sharp as needles, her own skin and Will’s was hard and rough, it itched from insect bites and often erupted in boils.

How she longed for all those things which were part of everyday life back in Fowey! To smell fresh bread baking, the lavender, roses and pinks in the tiny garden. To see strawberries, apples and plums still glistening with dew. A jug of cold milk, putting on a clean petticoat still fragrant from drying outside. To see her feet pink and soft after washing. To lie on the billowy softness of a feather mattress and watch the curtains fluttering in the breeze.

Only her children gave her a sense of all she’d left behind. Their skin was still silky, their voices soft and melodious to her ears, their breath as sweet as spring water. Apart from their rags, they were no different in nature to children born to the nobility. But just as she couldn’t expect them to retain their baby looks, she couldn’t hope to shield them from being corrupted either. Soon they would witness the floggings, the rutting behind bushes and the drunkenness, and they would consider that normal. Without something of beauty or worth to show them, how would they ever know the difference between good and evil?

They were innocent of any crime, yet by being born to a convict they became convicts too. And unless she got them away from here, that stigma would be attached to their children, and their children’s children. She couldn’t let that happen.

The following morning Mary got the children up, fed Emmanuel and made Charlotte some fried bread for breakfast, without waking Will. He was still lying on the floor where he’d fallen the previous night, and the hut stank of rum.

She heard the drum for work sound while she was on her way to collect dirty washing from the officers’ houses. Although she wondered whether the loss of the cutter would mean that Will would be expected to report for work like the other men, she certainly wasn’t prepared to go back and wake him.

She had a bundle of washing slung over her shoulder, Emmanuel balanced on her hip, and Charlotte skipping ahead of her, when she heard Tench call out her name. She hadn’t seen him, even at a distance, in weeks, for his work at Rose Hill kept him there. He was coming out of Surgeon White’s house, and she guessed he’d stayed the night there.

‘How is Charlotte?’ he asked as he came nearer. ‘I heard she was in the boat yesterday?’

‘She’s forgotten it already,’ Mary said. ‘But it gave me a terrible fright before I heard she was safe.’

‘And Will, how is he?’ he asked.

‘Sleeping it off,’ she said, leaving Tench to guess whether she meant the shock of the accident or drink. ‘Or he was when I left.’

‘The repairs will be started today,’ Tench said, looking over towards the wharf. ‘He should be there.’

‘Repairs?’ Mary’s heart leaped.

Tench smiled, reaching out to stroke Emmanuel’s cheek. ‘Of course. Captain Phillip wants it back in use as soon as possible.’

‘Is he angry with Will?’ Mary asked.

‘Why should he be?’ Tench frowned. ‘Captain Hunter saw the whole thing and reported back. It could have happened to anyone, after all it happened to Hunter himself on the Sirius at Norfolk Island. Phillip is also very heartened by the way Bennelong and his native friends helped out in the rescue.’

‘Will is expecting to be flogged.’ Mary half smiled.

‘I’ll go and see him then,’ Tench said. ‘He has nothing to fear if he throws himself into repairing the boat.’

Mary walked part of the way with Tench, and they talked about Bennelong, and how he’d helped out once before when Captain Phillip was speared by one of the natives.

‘It’s my hope that in years to come all our people will embrace the natives wholeheartedly,’ Tench said.

Mary normally agreed with his views, but today, somewhat jaded by her own fears and despair, she couldn’t help thinking he was being naive and even ridiculous.

‘They won’t,’ she said. ‘My guess is that there will come a time when the government will want to wipe out all the natives because they don’t fit in with their plans for this place.’

Tench looked appalled. ‘Oh, Mary, no!’

‘That’s what they do to anyone who has different values to themselves,’ she said defiantly. ‘The rich and powerful got that way by trampling on the less able. Even when us convicts have served our time, do you really think our past will be forgotten? My guess is there’ll always be a two-tiered society here. Convicts, natives and ex-convicts at the bottom, people like your sort at the top.’

‘I don’t know what you mean by “your sort”,’ he said indignantly. ‘All men are born equal. It is individual choice whether they rise or fall.’

‘It’s a damn sight easier to rise if you are educated, with a rich family to steer you,’ she snapped. ‘But that’s not my point. Us convicts are no better than slaves to your sort. The more they send here, the more attractive this country will become to the moneyed classes back in England. I expect in time they’ll come here to grab land, and who will work it?’ She paused, waiting for him to give her a straight answer. But he said nothing, only looked hurt.

‘Us convicts,’ she said triumphantly. ‘That’s who! Don’t deny it won’t happen, sir, you know it will. Some people might feel badly about capturing a black man and forcing him to work for nothing. But no one at all cares if a bunch of convicted criminals are worked to death.’

Tench was staggered. In all the time he’d known Mary she’d never before shown such bitterness. ‘I thought you were quite happy here with Will and your children,’ he said weakly. Yet even as he said this he realized he was making the assumption that most of the officers made: that convicts had no finer feelings.

‘Happy!’ she laughed mirthlessly. ‘How can I be happy when Charlotte cries with hunger? When I am afraid for her and Emmanuel’s future? They have done nothing wrong, yet they are sentenced to life imprisonment too.’

‘I’m so sorry, Mary.’ Tench’s voice shook, and his eyes swam. ‘I wish—’

‘Wishes don’t come true,’ she said, cutting him short. ‘Prayers aren’t answered, not for women like me. I have to make my own luck.’

Tench stood for a while as Mary went on down to the shore to wash the clothes. He felt impotent, for he knew deep in his heart that every word she’d said was true. When the Scarborough, Surprise and Neptune got back to England, who would care about the number of felons who died on the way out to New South Wales? Or all those who had died here from the First Fleet? None, he suspected. Yet there would be thousands waiting eagerly to hear the reports on what this place was like, with a view to grabbing land here. Maybe most would be put off by the hardships involved, but opportunists would think of the free labour and be prepared to take a gamble. Just as they’d done in America.

Tench watched as Mary sat Emmanuel down on the ground beside Charlotte, then knelt by the water to begin the washing. He was reminded of the first time he spoke to her on the Dunkirk, when she was incensed by the filthy conditions in the hold.

She was truly remarkable. She had struggled bravely to make the best of her lot in life ever since that day. Plenty of other young and sparky women like her had just given up. Her friend Sarah was a drunken slattern now, as indeed were most of the surviving women from the Charlotte. Seven had died, and God only knew whether some of those might have lived if there’d been a ray of hope that conditions would improve here.

He felt deeply for all of them, but suddenly to hear and see Mary’s bitterness, when she had once been so optimistic, was unbearable.

Why couldn’t he find the courage to tell her how he felt about her? Put aside all those lofty plans for his future, and urge her to leave Will and come to him? Other officers like Ralph Clark had taken lag wives, and Clark had a wife at home waiting for him, whom he professed to love. It wouldn’t be so difficult. Will’s time was nearly up, he’d go happily on the next ship without looking back.

But much as Tench wanted Mary, he knew he couldn’t do it. He was too bound by convention to take a woman and her children from another man. It wouldn’t be right not to give her the security of marriage. Nor could he bear to see her slighted by his friends and family, as they surely would if they knew her history.

Besides, he could be fooling himself that she felt as he did. She had never said anything to suggest she felt anything more than friendship towards him.

He looked at her slight figure bent over the water, and there was determination in every inch of her body. She would find some way to help herself. Somehow he knew she wasn’t destined to be anyone’s slave.