Remember Me(11)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter eleven





1791

‘You have the money?’ Detmer asked in his heavily accented English.

Mary nodded and held out a bundle of clean washing. ‘It’s in a handkerchief,’ she whispered. She lightly touched the bundle he was carrying. ‘Are they in there?’

It was 26 March, Detmer was due to set sail back for England in two days’ time with Captain Hunter and his crew from the wrecked Sirius.

Mid-morning on the wharf was busy and noisy. Detmer’s seamen were rolling along barrels of fresh water for loading, Marines patrolled, male convicts building a new shed hammered and sawed, and a gaggle of women convicts returning from cleaning duties in the officers’ houses were shouting to one another. There were many children too, dirty, semi-naked little urchins boldly climbing on the many packing cases for loading. From time to time someone would shout and order them off, and they’d disappear like rats down a culvert, only to appear again within minutes.

The cutter had been repaired, just as Tench said it would be. As it turned out, the accident had been fortuitous, for now the boat was in far better shape than it had been previously.

‘Yes, they are in there. A sextant and compass. I wouldn’t cheat you, Mary,’ Detmer said, his smile slightly reproving. ‘Will you come out to the ship for a farewell drink?’

‘You know I daren’t,’ she said, glancing around her. She was very aware that Detmer’s ship was being watched closely, for there had been stowaways on the Scarborough when it left Sydney Cove. They were discovered before the ship got to the Heads and were immediately put ashore. But since then all the troops and officers had been far more watchful. She could see a couple of officers coming down from Government House, and knew it would be advisable to get away from the wharf and suspicion as quickly as possible.

‘I wish I could do more for you,’ Detmer said with a sigh. ‘Had I met you anywhere else in the world, I believe there would have been a different outcome.’

Mary blushed and lowered her eyes. She never knew how to take Detmer and his often very personal remarks. Some days she felt certain he did have strong feelings for her – why else would he risk so much to help her and Will? Yet at other times she felt she was just a pawn in his game to upset Captain Phillip.

‘Look at me, Mary,’ he said, his voice soft and insistent.

She looked into his clear blue eyes and felt that all too familiar tug of desire for him. He looked even more handsome than usual today – his fair hair had been trimmed, he had shaved and his white shirt was spotless. Even his long boots were highly polished, and she wondered if all that was for her.

It was extraordinary that once again she should be attracted to a man so far above her. For two months now Detmer had invaded her thoughts and dreams in the same manner that Tench always had. But whereas Tench would always have a special place in her heart, and she intuitively knew that his feelings mirrored hers, with Detmer it was purely physical.

He came across to her as a man who had never been answerable to anyone. She felt he had salt water in his veins and was happiest out at sea battling against the elements. He was as deep as the ocean, and perhaps just as dangerous.

‘That’s better,’ he said, and smiled. ‘I will not be able to see you again before I leave. You must return this washing to one of the crew.’

Mary nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Whatever his motives for helping her, he had been entirely honourable. No blackmailing her into his bed – he had treated her as a lady, not a convict. She would be forever in his debt.

‘I am so afraid for you, and your children,’ he said, lowering his voice to a whisper. ‘I hope to God you make it.’

‘If determination counts for anything, we will,’ she said, then hesitated. She so much wanted to convey the depth of her gratitude to him, yet she knew if she attempted it she might start to cry. ‘Bless you, Detmer,’ she managed to add.

‘And may God bless you,’ he said softly. ‘I won’t forget you. I’ll make inquiries to discover how you fared.’

They exchanged the parcels, and his hand covered hers for a second. ‘I must go now,’ she said, taking a step back away from him. ‘I’ll return the washing tomorrow.’

At two in the afternoon of the 28th, Mary and Will stood on the shore together silently watching the Waaksamheyd sail down the bay towards the Heads. Seabirds flew in its wake, and they could hear the wind in her sails.

Up on the wharf almost the entire settlement was watching her departure, Mary could hear their cheers and shouted farewells in the distance. Captain Phillip would be among them, and for the first time Mary felt a pang of sympathy for the man.

He must almost certainly wish he was sailing home with Captain Hunter. They had been friends, and had been through a great deal together. In many ways Phillip was as much a prisoner as Mary was, chained to this desperate place by a sense of honour and commitment. Now that her escape was so close she could see clearly that he was in fact a good man. He had been humane, fair and dignified at all times, mostly under the most impossible conditions. She could even find it in her heart to wish him well.

‘Just seven hours and we’ll be on our way,’ Will said with a faint tremor in his voice.

Mary knew he was thinking of what would happen if they were caught. They might very well be hanged; they’d certainly be flogged and put back into irons too. However good their plan was, however careful they’d been, there was always a chance that someone with a grudge had got wind of it, and would give them away.

Mary slipped her hand into Will’s and squeezed it. She was scared too, not for herself but her children, for she knew only too well that she was taking a gamble with their lives.

Yet she had to take that gamble. If they stayed here the chances were that the next epidemic or the next cut in rations would carry them off, just as it had so many other children. It was surely better to take their chances with the sea. At least if they drowned, they would all go together. A quick, clean death.

‘The cutter is in fine shape now,’ Will said, as if to reassure himself. ‘Even the weather is on our side.’

Mary looked up at the sky. It was cloudy, and unless it suddenly cleared it would obscure the moon tonight. The breeze was very light, but that hardly mattered as they would be letting the tide carry them out of the bay – oars would make too much noise and sails would be too conspicuous.

‘We’re going to do it,’ she said firmly. ‘I know we are.’

It was dark by six, and in the next couple of hours, the men arrived one by one and left silently, each with a sack of goods to be taken further down the shore to the agreed departure point.

Emmanuel and Charlotte were both sound asleep in bed. Mary had no fears that Emmanuel would wake when she picked him up, but Charlotte was a different story. She had been tiresome all day, whining and throwing tantrums. Clearly she had sensed that something was going on, and if she woke to find herself in a boat, she might start screaming.

Mary’s mouth was dry with fright as she saw the last sack taken from the secret store under the floor and she was left alone with the sleeping children. Sam Broome would be back soon to help her with them. She would carry Charlotte, he would take Emmanuel, for Will would be waiting for Bennelong to bring in the boat.

She knelt down by the bed and offered up a last-minute prayer for their safety, but her attention wandered to all that this little hut had meant to her in the last three years.

It had been a haven, the one place where she felt an element of peace and safety. She had found joy in love-making with Will, there had been the happiness of Emmanuel’s birth, and so many different milestones in Charlotte’s development, from her first steps to her first words. Now they were leaving it for the unknown.

‘Mary!’

She jumped at the sound of Sam’s whisper, and turned to see him in the doorway. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

She realized he was embarrassed at interrupting her prayers.

‘It’s all right,’ she whispered as she got up from her knees. ‘Have you see Bennelong yet?’

Sam came right into the hut and looked down at the sleeping children. In the light from the flickering candle his lean face had an almost skeletal quality. He was not a handsome, confident man like Will, but the tender way he looked at the sleeping children touched Mary.

‘Will thought he saw him swimming out to the cutter,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t make out anything though, it’s too dark, but he said you were to come now.’

Mary lifted up Emmanuel, wrapped him more securely in his blanket, then passed him to Sam. Picking up a sling she’d made from some canvas, she tucked it round the sleeping baby. She tied one set of straps around Sam’s waist and the other two were put over his shoulders, crossed at his back and then secured in the front.

‘It will leave your hands free,’ she said by way of an explanation, afraid he might be irritated at her treating him like a nursemaid.

He gave her a faint grin. ‘I’m scared. Are you?’ he whispered.

Mary shook her head. Her stomach was churning, she was breaking out in a cold sweat, and the greater part of her wished she’d never dreamed up this plan. But she wasn’t going to admit to any of that.

‘We will do it, Sam,’ she said with more bravado than conviction, and turned back to the bed for Charlotte.

As she lifted the child up into her arms, Charlotte muttered in her sleep, but her head drooped down on her mother’s shoulder and she didn’t wake. Sam picked up the blanket and tucked it round the child, then smiled at Mary. ‘Ready?’

‘Almost,’ Mary said, and leaning down to the little table picked up a cloth bag.

‘What’s that?’ Sam whispered as the bag rustled.

‘Sweet tea leaves,’ Mary said, and smiled. ‘I have to take the one thing that we liked about this place, don’t I?’

They stole silently from the hut, pausing every now and then to check no one was about. Further back towards the town they could see the faint glow from dying fires, but the only sounds were the usual night ones of a sentry’s boots up on the quay, snoring from huts, the odd muted cough and the water lapping on the beach. Charlotte stirred in her mother’s arms, but Mary wrapped the blanket round her tighter to keep out the cool air, and walked faster to keep up with Sam.

Once Mary’s eyes had grown used to the dark, she could just make out the cutter coming towards the shore and Bennelong swimming before it, invisible except for a flash of white teeth every now and then.

She knew that if anyone had discovered their plan, it would be in the next few minutes that they would be stopped. Her ears ached with the strain of listening for running feet, every muscle was taut, and she expected to hear a musket fire with every step. When Will stepped out of the bushes in front of her she nearly jumped out of her skin. It was so eerie: the dark beach, the eight men all standing as still as statues, and the bundles lying like so many boulders. No one said a word, everyone watching as the cutter came closer and closer in.

Will waded out a little way, then swam almost as silently as Bennelong to help him bring the boat in closer. It glided in, just a few feet away, and James Martin waded into the water, climbed into the boat and signalled for the others to bring out the bundles.

Mary’s nerves were now at almost breaking point, for every small sound seemed magnified. She rocked Charlotte gently, willing her not to wake, and wished the men could be a little quicker with their loading.

‘I’ll take her now,’ William Moreton whispered to Mary, holding out his arms. ‘You go and get in.’

It was the moment Mary had been dreading most, for the child was bound to wake if she was moved from her arms. Yet she knew she couldn’t hold her and climb into the boat too. But William took Charlotte as gently as if she were his own child, and nodded to Mary to go.

Hitching her dress up high, Mary waded out silently, then taking a seat she held out her arms for Charlotte again. William Moreton handed her over, then got in. Next came Sam Broome, with Emmanuel, seating himself beside Mary.

Bennelong was grinning, his teeth and eyeballs flashing like white lights as he held the boat steady for the other men to get in with the muskets wrapped in oil cloth. Will sat at the tiller, Nat Lilly and Jamie Cox on either side of him, Bill Allen was the last. Bennelong gave the boat a hefty shove, and they were off.

Bennelong swam with them for some distance, pushing the boat until it caught in the current and began to drift slowly down the bay. Then he broke away, waved his hands in farewell and disappeared into the darkness as silently as a fish.

It was some time before Mary realized she had been holding her breath.

It seemed like many tortuous hours before they finally saw the Heads looming up ahead, like twin black mountains, although in reality it couldn’t have been more than three. Everyone remained absolutely silent, for if they were spotted or heard by the lookout he would raise the alarm and shots would be fired.

All at once the water became choppier, they felt the current surging, dragging the heavily laden boat towards the gap between the Heads, and Will was wrestling with the tiller to get them safely through. Charlotte woke, sat straight up on Mary’s lap and looked around her in astonishment.

‘Hoist the sail,’ Will whispered. ‘Freedom is ours!’

The sail billowed out, the wind caught it, and all at once they were speeding along, the moon suddenly coming out from behind thick cloud as if to join them in their celebration. James Martin, always the most voluble of the men, gave a low rumble of a laugh, and was quickly joined by the others.

‘We’re free,’ Will said in a shaky voice, as if he could hardly believe it. ‘By God, we’re free!’

Mary couldn’t speak, only smile. She turned her head to look back, but could see nothing but the black rocks and the passageway they’d come through.

She felt no sadness at leaving, it wasn’t in her nature to have regrets. Ahead was all that counted. But she did have a picture in her mind of Tench asleep in his bed, and that gave her a little pang of sorrow.

She had never seen him sleeping, shaving, washing or without his clothes. In her mind he would always be in his red jacket, white breeches and long, highly polished boots, striding along the quay. She would remember his soft brown eyes too, and the way his hand felt when he touched hers. All those many little kindnesses.

If she had a regret it was only that she hadn’t said goodbye, told him just once that she cared for him. But such thoughts were foolish, because he wouldn’t have been able to be party to an escape.

She glanced back once more, sending a silent message to him on the wind, knowing she would never see him again. Then she turned back and made a loud whoop of delight at their freedom.

While she had no idea if they could make it all the way to Kupang, it was enough that the plan to get out of the harbour had worked. She looked around at the eight jubilant male faces, and knew that in her own way she’d won a victory. She might not be able to read and write, or navigate like Will could, and perhaps none of the men would ever acknowledge her part in the escape, but she knew the truth, and come what may, she intended to see they found safety and permanent freedom.

She pressed her lips into Charlotte’s forehead, aware that in the weeks ahead she would have to be constantly on guard over her children.

‘Haven’t you got anything to say about my ingenious plan, Mary?’ Will shouted out.

For a brief second she considered pointing out the plan was hardly his. But as her father had often said, ‘A battle is won by strategy, not by superior force.’

‘Well done, Will,’ she said, and smiled at him with affection. ‘You are a clever, brave man.’