Remember Me(13)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter thirteen





Sam Broome and James Martin stopped in their search for shellfish in the rock pools and sat down wearily.

‘Mary’s a hard task-master,’ James said with a hint of laughter in his voice. ‘But she’s a grand woman for all that.’ His breeches were so ragged now that they were hardly worth wearing, for most of his legs and parts of his butt**ocks were uncovered. Sam’s shirt and breeches were still in one piece but so threadbare that one more dip in the sea would probably see them float away.

Sam looked back along the beach where they could see Mary hanging washing on some bushes to dry. She’d insisted they were to fill the sack with shellfish or not return to the camp. ‘Aye, but she’s harder on herself than us,’ he replied. He knew Mary wouldn’t rest all day. When the washing was finished she too would be out looking for anything edible to supplement their provisions.

James nodded in agreement. He found it incredible that Mary could be so calm and controlled after what they’d all been through in the last couple of weeks. Just last night he had woken from the most terrifying nightmare, and been too scared to shut his eyes again. Even Will, who had put to sea many times in the foulest weather Cornwall could throw at a fisherman, admitted he’d never known anything like as bad. James believed they had looked into the very face of death that night when the anchor broke away from the sea bed, and it wasn’t surprising most of the men were reluctant to set sail again.

‘We would have all drowned but for Mary,’ Sam stated, his voice shaking with emotion. ‘Her courage and endurance puts us all to shame.’

James knew this was true, but it would make him feel uncomfortable to agree with Sam.

‘Aye, but you were always sweet on her,’ he teased instead. ‘You’d better keep your thoughts about her to yourself, Sam. Will can be a dangerous man when he’s crossed.’

‘My thoughts about Mary are pure,’ Sam protested. ‘But for her I wouldn’t have been alive to come on this escape. I was close to death when they dumped me like a sack of rice on the wharf. I saw other women stealing the clothes of those too weak to protest, they passed me by, not even giving me water because I was in rags. But she came to me, God bless her.’

Sam’s passionate statement pricked James’s conscience. He hadn’t cared enough to help with the sick on the Second Fleet and he remembered he’d hidden himself away with a bottle of rum he’d stolen while helping to load goods in the stores. During the next week or so there was a great deal of talk about how hard Mary had worked with the sick, while he’d even been callous enough to tell her it would be better for all of them if they died.

Looking back further, he could recall his reunion   with Will when the men came ashore that first day in Port Jackson. Will had not known that Samuel Bird and James had been sent out on another ship of the fleet, and he was thrilled to meet up with them again. James remembered talking excitedly about sharing a tent with him and other men from the Dunkirk, but Will confounded him by saying he intended to marry Mary and built a hut of his own.

James thought the man had taken leave of his senses. He couldn’t believe Will would choose to live with one woman and her child when he could be with his old mates and have a different woman every night of the week.

Yet James had come to envy Will before long. The women prisoners were in the main a disappointment, either conniving bitches or pathetic wretches, and there wasn’t much fun to be had when a man was constantly hungry.

Mary had proved to be an inspired choice as a wife. She was bright and cheerful, she kept herself and Charlotte clean and decent. And just to look at big Will, who remained fitter and stronger than anyone else, was enough to know she took care of him in every way.

But then, just as he’d been wrong in his initial judgement of Mary, he’d been wrong about Will too.

‘’Tis not a good thing to idolize anyone,’ he said, thinking aloud. ‘Oh, I’m not meaning Mary,’ he said quickly as he saw Sam’s surprised and rather indignant expression. ‘I’m talking of Will.’ He didn’t think he would ever forget how the big man had sat cowering with fear that last night at sea. Or how Mary’d screamed like a banshee to make them all exert themselves. ‘You see, right since I first met him on the Dunkirk, I surely believed he was indestructible.’

‘A man who has to boast about his strength or cleverness isn’t sure of it,’ Sam said with a self-satisfied smirk. ‘And a man who will lay another out just on suspicion he wants his woman is a fool.’

James shrugged. He might be disappointed in his old friend, but he wasn’t about to let some Johnny-comelately slander him. ‘Watch what you say,’ he warned. ‘Will and I go back a long way.’

‘I know,’ Sam said carefully. ‘But you are no fool, James. You know as well as I do we need a strong leader if there is to be any chance of making it to Kupang. I’m not so sure Will is up to that any longer.’

‘Surely you aren’t thinking a woman with two babbies can be that leader?’ James retorted. He admired Mary himself, but it was not in his nature to believe a woman could be tougher and more resilient than himself or any other man.

Sam chuckled. ‘Of course not. We’d have mutiny on our hands.’

James had often called Sam ‘the Parson’ back in Port Jackson, because of his appearance, mild manners and disapproval of drink. But in the past weeks he’d come to see that the man was strong-willed and resourceful. He had an idea that Sam had some sort of plan of his own, and he thought it best to winkle it out now, so he’d know where he stood.

‘What if Will suggests we stay here till the bad weather’s over?’ he asked tentatively. Will had only hinted at this, and if James were to be totally honest, the idea had some real attractions.

Sam half smiled. To him, this bay they’d christened White Bay was paradise. The soft sand, the lush vegetation and the mild weather were all so seductive. ‘I’d gladly stay if we had more provisions,’ he admitted. ‘I’m no more anxious than anyone else to risk drowning again in a storm. But were we to stay, the flour and rice would run out, and there’s a chance a ship might come by and haul us back to Sydney.’

‘We could fish and hunt,’ James retorted. ‘As for a ship coming by, how likely is that?’

‘Not very,’ Sam agreed. ‘But the whole point of our escape was to find a new life. The longer we put it off, the weaker we’ll all become.’

‘You got that from Mary,’ James scoffed.

‘Maybe, but that doesn’t stop it being true. I think we’ve got to press on.’

‘What if Will doesn’t agree?’ James said.

Sam shrugged. The gesture implied he thought those who wanted to go had a perfect right to take the boat and leave the others stranded.

James got up and began prising mussels off the rocks with a knife. He wasn’t shocked that Sam would cheerfully leave Will here, he’d probably do the same if he could gain something by it. To him loyalty was just a concept men embraced when a mob could have more power than an individual. Mostly James looked after number one and to hell with anyone else.

He was also lazy by nature. He had always taken the easiest path open to him. On the face of it, the easiest one right now appeared to be to stay here. But was it? They wouldn’t be risking their lives, not unless some natives came and attacked them, but they’d need to build real shelters or huts, and they had only a few tools. With only one woman among eight men, they’d soon be fighting one another. Besides, he yearned for city life, for noise and bustle, to be able to get drunk, eat what he chose, ride a horse and charm the ladies.

He remembered how in the first year of the settlement, some misguided fools had run off into the bush thinking if they kept going they would get to China. He had laughed aloud at that, but then he was one of only a handful of men who could read and write, and he had a pretty good grasp of the world’s geography.

He knew from Detmer Smith that from Kupang he could get a boat to China, or Africa, even South Africa. Those were all places where a lazy, cunning Irishman might find an easy life.

William Moreton wanted to press on, if only to prove he was as good a sailor as Will. Mary most certainly did, and Nat Lilly would side with Sam Broome now because they’d formed a strong allegiance. Bill Allen was likely to want to get to Kupang quickly, which left only Jamie Cox and Samuel Bird likely to side with Will.

James knew there was a lot more to be gained by siding with Mary than with Will. A plucky, resourceful little woman like her could be very useful to him when they made it to Kupang.

*

That same evening the whole party was clustered round the fire, for it had turned cold once darkness fell. William Moreton had brought up the subject of when they should move on. He wanted to leave the very next morning.

‘What’s to be gained by staying here?’ he said forcefully. ‘We’ve had a rest, dried our clothes and mended the boat.’

William irritated everyone. He had no sense of humour, he was pedantic and believed he knew everything. Nat, who had a mischievous streak, often goaded him by asking why, if he was so clever, he’d managed to get himself caught stealing. But he did have some clout with the group because of his navigation skills.

‘I say we stay a while longer,’ Will said stubbornly. ‘The boat can’t take another bad storm.’

All the men had had something to say, but Mary had made no comment so far. She was watching their faces and trying to gauge what each one really wanted. Sam Broome, Jamie Cox and Samuel Bird had almost blank expressions, and she guessed this was because they were weighing up the opinions of the more dominant group members. Then they’d side with whoever they trusted most.

James Martin was liked by everyone. He was good in a crisis, his humour had saved the day many times, he did have leadership qualities, but he wasn’t the most rational of men.

Bill was also a good leader. He would row far longer than anyone else, chop wood quicker, light a fire almost instantly, and was sympathetic to those weaker than himself. But he was no sailor.

A month ago all the men would have gone along blindly with whatever Will decided, but he’d lost his hold over them since they’d seen him afraid and unsure of what to do.

Mary felt saddened that they were turning away from Will. They were all terrified during the storms, which were more than any human being could cope with, and she didn’t think Will should be judged so harshly because he lost his nerve. But for Charlotte and Emmanuel she too would have panicked; the fact that she didn’t was only down to a fierce maternal instinct to protect her children at all costs.

Mary was torn two ways herself. While she desperately wanted to press on to Kupang, to find permanent security, a home for her children and a tranquil life free from anxiety, Charlotte and Emmanuel weren’t too well. The sea voyage, the cold and the constant soaking had taken a lot out of them. They were gaunt-faced, fearful and thin, and food was going straight through them. They really needed more time to recuperate. But Mary’s milk was drying up, the rice they’d brought with them wouldn’t last more than another three weeks, and she didn’t know if a year-old baby’s stomach could cope with a diet of mainly shellfish.

She thought that most of the men shared her conflict, not for the same reasons of course, but because they were scared of running into another bad storm.

‘I agree with William,’ Sam Broome said. ‘We should go on, as fast as possible. There’s nothing to be gained by waiting here till the provisions run out.’

Sam had become popular with the others for his calm practicality and his ability to listen, but since the night Will hit him, he had changed. While still measured, he asserted himself more. Mary sensed he had weighed up the other men and found most of them wanting in some way, especially Will. She didn’t think Sam hated Will, or would like to see William Moreton become their leader. But she guessed he wanted some re-alignment of power, perhaps with himself as second in command.

‘We can hunt and fish here,’ Will argued, his face flushed with anger as no one seemed to be considering him their leader any longer. ‘Didn’t I keep everyone fed back in Sydney?’

The four men who had come on the Second Fleet hadn’t experienced the near-starvation rations prior to their arrival, so Will’s claim meant little to them. Only Jamie Cox and Samuel Bird nodded to confirm this was true.

‘What about you, James?’ Sam asked the Irishman. ‘Go on, or stay?’

James couldn’t bring himself to oppose his old friend openly. ‘I’d like a few jugs of ale and some women,’ he said with a contrived carefree air. ‘And no amount of waiting around here will produce that.’

Some of the men laughed, but Will looked as if James had just stuck a knife in his back.

‘That sounds like you want to go on,’ Sam said, avoiding looking at Will. ‘Anyone else got anything to say?’

Nat Lilly cleared his throat and spat noisily into the sand. ‘We should go on right enough, but go ashore each time the weather turns.’

Jamie Cox kept his eyes down. He was the youngest of them, and he’d told Mary once that he wouldn’t have survived the Dunkirk without Will’s help. He was slightly built and his sharp features which had reminded Mary of a bird at their first meeting were sharper still now. He clearly didn’t care whether they left or stayed, as long as he was still with Will.

‘Bill, what do you think?’ Sam asked.

‘Go on,’ he growled, glowering at William Moreton as if to warn him not to try to take command.

Samuel Bird still had a blank expression.

‘Mary! Where d’you stand?’ William asked her.

Mary hadn’t expected to be asked and she hesitated, not wanting to oppose her husband. Yet William Moreton had been the most outspoken about the foolishness of taking a woman and her children with them. If he cared what she thought, then she had a duty to voice it.

‘I agree with Nat,’ she said. ‘We should press on, but stop if the weather changes.’

‘So we’re to listen to a bloody woman now, are we?’ Will exploded. ‘What does she know.’

Jamie Cox looked up in astonishment. Bill narrowed his eyes, looking daggers at Will. Sam bristled visibly.

‘I’d say she knows more than all of us,’ James remarked in a languid drawl. ‘But for her we’d be fish food now. But let’s have no more of this. Put it to a vote.’

William Moreton looked at Will, perhaps expecting him to make some kind of speech to regain the loyalty of his former followers. But either Will believed he didn’t need to do that, or he knew the outcome already, for he folded his arms sullenly.

‘All those in favour of going on tomorrow, raise your hand,’ William said.

Only Jamie Cox and Will kept theirs down.

‘Motion carried,’ William said, and smirked with self-importance.

‘Don’t cry to me if the boat don’t make it,’ Will said with a shrug. He then turned to Mary with a look of pure malice. ‘And don’t you blame me, girl, if the babbies die!’

There were times after they left White Bay when Mary was tortured by the memory of Will’s words, for there were many more terrific storms which came on so suddenly they had no chance of getting ashore. Each time she saw her children’s stricken faces and heard their shrieks of pure terror, she asked herself what had possessed her to gamble with their lives.

Yet the need to protect them gave her the strength to fight back when she saw the men weakening. Jamie, Samuel Bird and Nat were the worst. They were all small men, with much less muscle than the others, and they couldn’t swim either, which made them even more frightened. In turn she praised, implored, bullied and goaded them. She swore at them from her position at the tiller, screamed that they were to bail and keep bailing if they didn’t want to die.

But just when she was beginning to think, as the men clearly were, that it was just a matter of time before death claimed them all, they came into calmer waters. On their left was the shore, to their right a huge reef, and the sea between was calm as a mill-pond.

‘Thank the Lord,’ William Moreton shouted in an unexpected display of emotion. ‘I really thought we were done for.’

Yet even this new calm sea wasn’t without hazards, for there were dozens of tiny islands and coral atolls to run aground on. They went ashore on one of the islands, only to find no fresh water, but they cooked up some rice with the remaining water, and when the tide went out set out across the rocks to look for more.

To their astonishment they saw dozens of giant turtles going up on the shore to lay their eggs. The men quickly killed some of them, and as the tide came back in, they hauled them back to their island.

That night they dined well on the first fresh meat they’d eaten since setting out from Sydney. As they fell asleep with full bellies for once, they were rewarded further by the sound of rain filling the upturned shells they’d hopefully left out.

In the days that followed, as James and Will caulked up the boat again with soap, the others caught more turtles and smoked the meat over the fire to take with them.

Bill had done a lot of poaching in his youth, and when he saw a kind of fowl that nested in the ground, he set out to catch them, with Nat as his accomplice. Mary found herself laughing as she watched them, for they certainly made the oddest partnership. Pugnacious, muscular Bill with his bald head glistening in the sun crouched down on the ground making hand signals to pretty boy Nat to drive the birds towards him. But they made a good team, and caught many birds, and Bill taught Nat the art of plucking them too.

Mary found more cabbage leaves, and fruit. She didn’t know what it was, but it tasted wonderful, and the children, who were both in a poor, listless condition, began to revive.

After six days’ rest they took off again, stopping every now and then to search for more turtles. They didn’t find any, but there was shellfish and plenty of fresh water.

Everyone had long ago stopped asking Will when they would come to the end of this gigantic land mass. Where they would make for in England was a subject of the past too. They were all suffering from apathy now, not really expecting ever to find any kind of real civilization. When they saw the Straits ahead, as marked on Will’s chart, they looked at each other questioningly, then as it slowly dawned on them that they were actually there, they began to laugh hysterically.

Once through the Straits, they found the gulf beyond was dotted with small islands, and they knew they must go ashore to refill the water cask before the last leg of the journey across the open sea. But as they tried to land on one of them, a group of natives watching them from canoes brandished spears and began paddling out to them.

The men were forced to fire their muskets to warn them off, but then to their consternation they saw the natives pick up bows and fire arrows at them. Mary blanched as several of these eighteen-inch arrows with a barbed point landed right in their boat, and the men had no choice but to row like mad to get clear of them.

These natives were bigger and blacker than any they’d met before, and they came roaring after them in their canoes. But just as it looked as though they would catch them, enough wind came up to fill the sails and they escaped, all very shaken.

‘We have to get water before we go across the gulf,’ Will said later. ‘It’s some five hundred miles at least, and even with a full cask we’ll still have to ration it.’

He was obviously right, and Mary was glad to see him taking charge again.

The following day they took a chance and moored at an island, despite a sizable village close by. They filled the water cask and left hastily, then returned to an uninhabited island to spend the night.

The following morning, elated by their success the previous day, they decided to go back for more water and to look for some fruit and cabbage leaves too.

The village looked as peaceful as it had the previous day, but as they sailed closer into shore, all at once two huge war canoes, with thirty to forty warriors on each, came hurtling out of nowhere, making straight for them. They had never seen boats like this before: they were sturdily made, with banks of paddles, sails made of some kind of matting, and a platform which was clearly for fighting.

Will swung the boat around. ‘Row like buggery,’ he yelled to the men, and quickly pulled up the mainsail.

Mary’s heart was in her mouth and she hardly dared to breathe. The natives’ faces and bodies were painted with a white pattern, they were chanting something, and she had no doubt it was their intention to kill every one of the intruding white men. They were so close now that she could smell their sweat and see the hatred in their faces. Even worse, there were more canoes coming out to join them.

Will showed them all then what a first-class sailor he was. He tacked back and forth to catch the wind, and once he’d got it, the boat sped forward just in the nick of time before the natives were in range to fire more arrows.

‘We’ll go straight across the Gulf now,’ he shouted. ‘Hold on to your hats. We’re leaving this Godforsaken country for good!’

The natives followed them for some miles, until they knew they couldn’t outstrip the cutter. As they finally turned to go back to land, Will cheered loudly. ‘We’ve beaten the bastards,’ he yelled, his smile as wide as the stretch of water in front of them.

Mary joined the men in complimenting Will on his expertise. She was proud of him, not just for his skill, but because she saw he had his old spirit back.

‘You did so well,’ she said, moving to sit beside him at the tiller.

‘Couldn’t have done better yourself?’ he said, raising one salt-encrusted eyebrow.

‘None of us could,’ she said truthfully, and kissed his cheek.

‘We’ll be a bit light on water and food,’ he said warningly.

‘Then we must ration it,’ she said. ‘Have you any idea how far it is now?’

He shook his head. ‘It’s all uncharted now. You’d better start praying, my girl.’

Three weeks later, in the middle of the night, Mary gazed up at the stars and prayed. The many prayers she’d offered up previously, that they should find land soon, had not been answered. Now she was begging God to let her children die before she did, so at least she could hold them to the end.

Emmanuel was in her arms, Charlotte was lying with her head in her mother’s lap. They were so thin and weak that they could no longer cry. They just lay there with their dull eyes constantly fixed on her. Mary had thought she was familiar with every kind of suffering, but knowing that she was responsible for her children’s slow and terrible death was new and far worse.

The last of the food had gone several days before, and the water ran out at noon the previous day, when Emmanuel and Charlotte were given the last drops. No one had spoken today, for they had all lapsed into a kind of torpor, their eyes fixed on the horizon. They weren’t even scanning it for land any longer, just avoiding looking at one another, for the sight of how weak they all were was too distressing.

Everyone but Mary and Will was asleep now. William Moreton sprawled against the empty water cask, Sam Broome and Nat Lilly were curled up like a couple of dogs in the bows, the others lay sagging against each other. Nat and Samuel Bird had suffered the worst from sunburn because of their fair skin, and their faces looked monstrous – red, swollen and blistered. Bill too had his share of sunburn on his bald head, but for the last few days he’d wrapped a piece of rag round it like a turban.

Will was hunched up at the tiller, but when Mary glanced at him she saw a stranger. He appeared to have shrunk, his once fleshy face now skeletal, and his eyes and mouth appearing much too large. It was just as well the wind was favourable, as it had been since they left the Gulf, for no one would have had the strength to lift the oars, much less row with them.

Mary wondered how the stars and moon could still shine so brightly at such a time. They twinkled in the calm, dark water like candles in a shrine. It seemed to her they were telling her to let the children go and spare them any further suffering.

She lifted Emmanuel higher into her arms. He weighed so little now, and she remembered how heavy he had been when they set out all those weeks before. He was all eyes now, for as his flesh disappeared, they had become more prominent. He didn’t even turn his head towards her breast the way he used to, as if he’d finally accepted there was no food there now.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered, kissing his little bony forehead. She wished they could have survived to see him walk, to hear him talk, to know that he would become as strong as his father when he was fully grown. It wasn’t fair that his short life should have been such a hard one. But as she turned her body slightly on the seat, intending to lower him into the water, she felt his fingers curl round one of hers.

It seemed to Mary he was making a silent plea to stay with her until the end. She clutched him tighter, bent her face to his little head and cried inwardly at her own cowardice.

‘Mary!’

She woke with a start, to find Will tugging at her dress.

The first rays of light were coming into the sky, and her first thought was that Will was expecting a storm and she must get bowls ready to catch the rain to drink.

‘Mary, are my eyes deceiving me, or is that land?’ he asked hoarsely.

Mary looked. It did look like land, a darker, wavy shape on the horizon.

A wild excitement ran through her. ‘Can we both be deceived at once?’ she asked. ‘It looks like land to me too.’

She moved along the seat, still holding the children, to be closer to him, and clutched hold of his hand.

‘Oh, Will,’ she whispered. ‘Can it be true?’

They held hands for at least an hour, watching and hoping against hope it wasn’t some kind of cruel joke of nature. But the dark shape remained constant, growing closer with each minute, until finally they were convinced it was in reality trees.

‘Well, my girl,’ Will said, beaming at her, ‘I got you there. Today’s the 5th of June 1791, and I’ve got to write in the log that I sighted land. It’s sixty-seven days since we left Sydney, and I thank God for our deliverance.’

‘Shall I wake the others?’ she asked. ‘Or let them sleep on?’

‘Bloody well wake them,’ he said, his once powerful voice a mere husky croak, a tear running down his whiskered cheek. ‘God knows it’s something worth waking for.’