Remember Me(15)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter fifteen





‘There is no point in denying it, Mary.’ Wanjon sighed in exasperation. ‘I know you escaped from the penal colony, your husband told me.’

At Wanjon’s words Mary felt as if she was tumbling into a black, bottomless pit, from which there would never be any way out.

She and the children had been separated from the men as soon as they arrived at the Castle gaol, so they had no opportunity to confer about what they were going to say. They didn’t know either whether Will had been arrested too. But Mary found herself being treated gently by the soldiers, the cell she was put in was clean, and she was brought water, bread and some fruit, so that gave her every hope.

Yet as she watched the sun rise through the tiny grilled window overlooking the port, and gradually move directly overhead, without anyone coming to her, her heart began to sink.

‘Why have we got to stay here, Mumma?’ Charlotte asked. She had accepted the situation patiently so far, but now she was getting restless. ‘I don’t like it here, I want to go home.’

‘We have to stay because a man wants to ask us some questions,’ Mary said, distractedly running her fingers through the child’s hair. ‘Now, be a good girl and let’s play with Emmanuel.’

But Mary had no heart to encourage Emmanuel to toddle between the two of them, and tell him what a clever boy he was for walking unaided. She was terribly afraid that this tiny cell, less than four feet wide by six feet long, was going to be their home for the unforeseeable future.

Charlotte looked so pretty now, dark curls framing her small sun-tanned face, her bare arms and legs plump and dimpled. She reminded Mary very much of her sister Dolly, for she had the same pouting lips and turned-up nose. All the care and attention over the last two months, and the company of other children, had given her more confidence; she’d even learned many of the native words.

It seemed to Mary that Charlotte had left babyhood behind and become a little girl now. Only a few days before she had refused to put on the dull grey dress she had been given when they first arrived here, and insisted on wearing a brightly coloured one her mother had made from a length of locally produced material. Mary had wanted to keep it for best, as she did her own pink dress, but Charlotte had made such a fuss that she’d given in.

Clearly Charlotte had forgotten that back in Sydney Cove she had only one dress, so worn, faded and patched it had fallen apart on the boat. Mary was very glad her daughter appeared not to remember the colony, or how they all were when they arrived here, fainting with hunger and thirst, their skin and hair crawling with lice. Mary had managed to blank it out too, but now, faced with the possibility they might be sent back there, it was back in the forefront of her mind again. It was bad enough imagining herself living that way again, but how could Charlotte stand it now that she knew a different kind of life? As for Emmanuel, his little stomach couldn’t possibly take a harsh prison diet. He wasn’t strong, just the slightest variation in his food brought on sickness again.

Later, when both he and Charlotte had fallen asleep, their heads on her lap as she sat on the floor, Mary stroked Emmanuel’s blond hair back from his eyes and choked back her tears. He was almost too pretty to be a boy, with his pure blond hair touching his shoulders, eyes like periwinkles, and translucent fair skin. She had kept him alive by sheer will-power on the boat, but if they had to stay in this gaol, or be sent back to the colony, how could she find that strength again? She knew that back home in Cornwall he’d be one of those babies people called ‘a special one’. That meant the child had the look of an angel, and therefore was not long for this world.

Mary could tell from the length of the shadows outside the window that it was about five in the afternoon when the gaoler unlocked the door of her cell. He was swarthy-skinned, with almond eyes, and he said something unintelligible to her, beckoning for her to follow him. Holding Emmanuel in her arms, and taking Charlotte by the hand, she was finally taken to Wanjon.

He was in one of the upper chambers of the Castle, a gloomy, cool room which presumably was his office for along with a desk there was a lamp and books on shelves, and many personal items, like a painting of a woman who was perhaps his wife, and a snake made of beads adorning a wooden bowl of fruit.

The white jacket Wanjon had been wearing the previous time she met him was slung on the back of his chair, his white shirt was crumpled and he smelled of sweat. Mary had thought him very personable and pleasant at that first meeting, but now he looked tired, hot and irritated. He was small and stout, with jet-black hair slicked down with oil and parted in the middle. She assumed from his name, almond eyes and coffee-coloured skin that he was native to this country, but he must have been well educated, probably in Holland or even England, as he could speak both English and Dutch fluently, along with the local language.

He began to ask her questions about the whaling ship: how many hands there were, the master’s name, where the ship was registered, and the last port they’d called into before the ship was wrecked.

Everything except where the ship was registered had been rehearsed by them all back in the cutter. But even as Mary began to spill out that the master was from Rio de Janeiro, his name was Marcia Consuella, there were eighteen hands, and they’d sailed out of Cape Town, she knew none of it would stand up to close scrutiny. When Emmanuel began to cry, she hoped that Wanjon would be irritated enough to give up.

Sadly, the only effect it had was to make him stop wasting any more time and come out with what he really believed.

‘This is all lies, Mary,’ he said, getting up and pacing up and down the room, his hands behind his back. ‘You were not on a whaler. You have never been on a whaler. You stole the boat back in New South Wales. You are escaped prisoners.’

Mary jogged Emmanuel up and down in her arms as she protested he was badly mistaken. And it was at that point that he informed her Will had told him everything.

It took Mary some time to come to terms with the shock. She had asked the guard earlier if her husband was being held here, and he’d said he wasn’t. Of course the guard had only a word or two of English, and her knowledge of his language was about the same, yet he appeared to understand what she asked. Will stood out in Kupang because of his size and blond hair, and Mary was sure that if he was in the Castle, everyone would know. She’d begun to think he might have made good the threat he’d come out with two nights ago and signed on a ship.

‘My husband, though it grieves me to admit it, likes to brag,’ she said wildly. ‘Perhaps he thought that was a more exciting story to tell than the truth.’

‘I have seen the log he kept,’ Wanjon responded wearily.

It was all Mary could do not to scream when she heard that, for she had begged Will to destroy the log, even before they arrived here.

‘This is all somewhat embarrassing for me,’ Wanjon went on as he continued to pace around the room. ‘You see, but for the arrival of Captain Edwards, I would have put you all on board the very next ship bound for England. But Captain Edwards wanted to know more about you all, so I had to bring in your husband and he told me everything.’

‘Will peached on us?’ she asked incredulously.

‘Peached?’ Wanjon frowned. ‘What does that mean?’

‘Told on us. Turned King’s evidence,’ Mary said.

‘Yes, he told on you,’ Wanjon nodded. ‘Some men have no loyalty when they think they can save their own skin.’

Mary broke down then, she could no longer hold back her tears. ‘Please, sir,’ she pleaded with him, ‘don’t send us back there. Emmanuel still isn’t well, Charlotte has only just recovered. They’ll die if we have to go back.’

‘My dear, this is beyond my jurisdiction,’ Wanjon said with a dismissive wave of his hand. ‘Your English naval officer, Captain Edwards, is the only one with the authority to decide what is to be done with you.’

He opened the door and gave an order to the guard.

‘You will go back to your cell now,’ he said, turning back to Mary. ‘You will be brought food and water. I am not a cruel man, Mary. You and your children will be treated well during your stay here.’

Wanjon stared out of the window for some time after Mary had been led away and his heart felt heavy. He had accepted the men’s story about how they made it here after their ship was wrecked, purely because it was so similar to what had happened to Captain Bligh two years earlier. It didn’t even cross his mind that they might have escaped from the penal colony in New South Wales. Who would think a bunch of mere convicts could make a journey of some 3,000 miles in an open boat?

Even Captain Edwards, for all his seamanship, had come to grief in the Torres Straits, but then he was a bull-headed man who thought he knew enough to sail through such dangerous waters at night. The man clearly had no heart, for he had put his fourteen captured mutineers into a box-like structure on the deck, leaving them there in all winds and weathers, their legs and arms shackled. When his ship was going down he refused to let any of the crew unchain them, and it was only thanks to one of the men who ignored the order that ten of them survived.

Wanjon sighed deeply. It grieved him to hand Mary and her companions over to Edwards, for he knew they would suffer sorely at his hands. Mary was an exceptionally courageous woman, and whatever the crime that led her to be transported, she had already paid dearly for it. As for those innocent little children, they had been a hair’s-breadth from death when they arrived here in Kupang. What right had any government, be it English, Dutch or any other nationality, to send them somewhere where their early death could be the only outcome?

It was over a week before Mary got to see any of the men. She was told by one of the guards who spoke a little English that they were being kept in one cell, Will included.

Wanjon had been as good as his word to Mary. She’d received wholesome food for herself and the children and was even brought a sleeping mat, a blanket and water to wash with. Daily, she was taken down to the yard with the children so they could have some fresh air and exercise in the Castle courtyard. Sometimes she even allowed herself to believe the Dutch Governor would intervene and let her go free. For surely a man who could treat her and her children with such kindness would not send her away to be hanged, and leave Charlotte and Emmanuel orphaned?

So when the guard told her she might visit the men in their cell, she couldn’t help but think that this was the first step to being released. The English captain hadn’t come to see her, perhaps he’d even left Kupang.

The men’s cell was much lower down in the Castle than hers, a big, dark, dank room with its slit-like window too high up in the wall to see out. They crowded round her, kissing and hugging the children, asking how she had been treated, and it was a minute or two before she noticed Will had remained sitting on a stool, his back to her.

‘Don’t you want to see Emmanuel and Charlotte?’ she asked.

‘He doesn’t deserve to see them ever again,’ Bill growled. ‘He peached on us.’

Mary looked hard at her friends, pleased to see that they all still looked well and their clothes were clean. But their glances towards Will were malevolent. Even Jamie Cox and Samuel Bird, who had followed him blindly for so long, looked as though they hated him.

Mary had had time to consider what Will was supposed to have done, and she’d come to the conclusion that he was unlikely to have gone purposely to Wanjon to inform on them. He would know that he would be counted as guilty as the rest of them, and though he might not be hanged for escaping because his sentence was already up, stealing Captain Phillip’s cutter would still warrant a death sentence.

‘I really can’t believe that of Will,’ Mary said, moving closer to him. He still hadn’t turned to look at her. ‘Tell me. Did you inform on us?’

‘They all believe I did,’ he said in a low voice. ‘So you might as well too.’

Mary caught hold of his chin and jerked him round so she could see him. She gasped. He’d been badly beaten, she assumed by the other men. Both eyes were hidden by purple, swollen flesh, his lip was cut, and his shirt was covered in bloodstains.

‘You deserve that for ignoring my warnings to keep out of sight,’ she said sharply. ‘You’re a louse, Will Bryant, a loud-mouthed, full-of-yourself, no-good bastard. But I still can’t believe you’d turn us in.’

‘I didn’t, I swear I didn’t,’ he said hoarsely. ‘I was drunk, some English sailors came in the bar, and we got swapping stories.’

Mary nodded, she could imagine it. The other men had talked about what they’d been through in their open boat after the shipwreck, and Will had to go one better and boast he’d been through worse.

Still she was furious with him – if she’d come face to face with him the day after they’d been arrested, she would have tried to kill him with her bare hands. But time, and the belief that Wanjon might still intervene on their behalf, had calmed her down enough at least to try to understand why and how Will had got them into this.

‘So, when were you brought here?’ she asked.

‘That same night,’ he said weakly. ‘I was just leaving the bar and the guards grabbed me. They took me to Wanjon early the next morning. He said you were all on your way here. He’d already got my log of the voyage from the place I was staying in. I couldn’t do anything but tell the truth, he’d got me cornered.’

Mary closed her eyes in an effort to calm herself. She felt confused by conflicting emotions. She had always cared a great deal for Will, and it was tragic to see him brought low like this. Although he should have kept his big mouth shut, she also knew none of them would have stood up to close and prolonged questioning. Their story was too full of holes.

But she certainly didn’t blame the other men for beating him. Both James and William had said he should destroy the log, and she knew exactly why he hadn’t. He saw himself as a hero, and he wanted the whole world to acknowledge him as such. Even if he hadn’t blurted it out here when drunk, he would have shouted it out sometime. The log was proof of his incredible feat. He probably hoped he could make money out of it too.

‘Why couldn’t you be satisfied with what we had?’ she asked bitterly. ‘We were safe, Emmanuel was getting better. We were all happy, for God’s sake. But you had to have more. Drink, other women –’

‘I didn’t have other women,’ he interrupted her.

Mary gave a hollow laugh. ‘I’d bet anything that you were staying with some whore. She’ll be the one that handed the log to Wanjon or one of his guards, for a bit more money than you gave her.’

He turned his head away and she knew then that that much was true. It hurt so badly that she felt sick.

‘I might not be the prettiest, cleverest woman in the world,’ she said brokenly, ‘but I was true to you, Will. Even when we were starving back in the camp, you never had to fear I would steal some of your rations, or your money. I made the best of what was there, and I should have killed to keep you and the children safe.’

‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered.

‘Is “sorry” going to help Charlotte and Emmanuel when we are hanged?’ she asked, her face contorted with anguish.

‘We won’t be hanged,’ he said.

‘We will be if we get sent back to England,’ she retorted. ‘And if we get sent back to New South Wales we’ll be flogged and put in chains again.’

She turned away from him, unable to cope with the picture either of those punishments brought to mind. She would rather have died at sea than live to see the day when her husband would put fame and money before her, their children and his friends.

*

On 5 October, Mary, Charlotte and Emmanuel were brought out of their cell to sail with the men on the Dutch ship Rembang. Captain Edwards had chartered this ship to take them, his eighteen crew members from the Pandora and the ten remaining captured mutineers to Batavia. Mary had no real idea where this was, all she knew was that it was another island in the Dutch East Indies with a big port. It seemed Captain Edwards planned to get another ship from there to Cape Town, then on to England.

In the two months they had been gaoled in Kupang Castle, Mary had clung to the hope that Wanjon might let her and the children stay here. She knew she had his sympathy for he sometimes let her and the other men out of the prison, always just in pairs, but it meant Mary could go to the village, let the children play on the beach and talk freely with whoever accompanied her.

She was never allowed to go with Will, however, perhaps because Wanjon thought that was too much of a risk. The only time she saw Will was in the Castle yard, and his endless apologies only served to upset her further. He was not the man she’d known so well any more. Being ostracized by the other men, especially James Martin, Jamie Cox and Samuel Bird, once his closest friends, had made him withdrawn and inclined to emotional, often nonsensical outbursts. He would frighten the children by holding them too tightly, and when Charlotte ran away from him or Emmanuel hid behind Mary’s skirts, Will would cry like a child. He would tell Mary he had always loved her, and beg her to forgive him. Wearily she would say she had, but in her heart she felt she never could. Often she wished she was able to ignore him as the other men did, but pity for him got the better of her.

They were only told a few days before the Rembang was due to sail that they’d be on her. As Mary had found one or two people who spoke some English when she was let out of the Castle, she could only view this with further dismay.

She had learned about Captain Edwards’s fearsome reputation. The tale about the Pandora’s ‘box’ where the mutineers were held and four died was common knowledge. It seemed that the Rembang had an extra deck. It didn’t take much imagination to see that this structure, with no portholes or hatches in it, just small holes along the roof, was yet another ‘box’. And that was where Captain Edwards intended to hold her and the men.

She had also been told that Wanjon had asked Captain Edwards to honour the many bills for food, accommodation and clothing Will had signed for. Edwards had refused, and Wanjon told him that he would be given no provisions for the month-long voyage unless he paid up. Mary knew that meant Edwards would have a grudge against them right from the start.

All in all, Mary knew that the trip to Batavia was going to be just like being back on the prison hulk in England, with little food, in darkness, and in chains. She was right on all counts. The extra deck had been divided into three, the front for the escaped convicts, the middle for the crew of the Pandora, and the aft for the mutineers. Yet even more frightening than the dark was the ‘bilboes’, a long pole fixed to the floor, from which sliding shackles were attached to their ankles, rendering them unable to move at all.

Mary took one last look at the port before she was shoved into their new cell. It had rained during the night, and the whole town glistened in the sunshine. She saw women from the village with babies in their arms waving to her from the wharf where stalls were piled high with fruit and vegetables. Fishermen were carrying huge baskets of freshly caught fish, and the young boy she had so often tried to converse with, who trundled a small cart laden with coconuts, called out to her. The smell of sandalwood hung in the air like an aromatic, invisible cloud, and her eyes filled with tears at saying goodbye to the place which had become so precious to her.

‘Why is he doing that to you, Mumma?’ Charlotte asked as one of the ship’s crew fastened the shackles around Mary’s ankles. ‘How can you walk now?’

Mary couldn’t answer, she was too overwhelmed by the impossibility of caring for both her children under these conditions. But Charlotte’s questions were halted when the door was slammed shut and bolted, leaving them in pitch darkness. She let out a piercing scream, and falling over the pole in the darkness, she landed in Mary’s lap on top of Emmanuel.

‘The captain had a cabin for you and the children aft of the ship,’ Jamie Cox said from across the darkness of the cell. ‘That bastard Edwards said you had to stay in here with us. He wants his pound of flesh because he’s disappointed he didn’t catch all the mutineers from the Bounty.’

‘I’ll cheerfully swing for him,’ James Martin growled, then after a moment’s pause spoke to Will. ‘Well, you’ve got your ship at last, big man,’ he said jeeringly in the darkness. ‘How d’you like your cabin? How does it feel to have yer missus and babbies with you?’

Day by day the agony of that dark cell grew worse. When the sun shone outside, it was so hot they felt they were being cooked alive; when a storm broke out, they were soaked through. They were given only the bare minimum of food and water to keep them alive, and the way they were shackled meant they couldn’t even move to relieve themselves. Mary screamed for mercy, if only for Charlotte and Emmanuel, but if anyone on the ship heard her, they ignored her. On the rare occasions the door was opened, she saw for herself that the improvement in her children’s health in Kupang had been undone. They sat crying in bewilderment, caked in the filth all around them, and after only a few days Emmanuel went down with fever.

The men hardly spoke. When Mary could see their faces, their eyes were haunted. Nat and Jamie whimpered in their sleep, Bill swore, and James seemed to be constantly awake, his eyes glowing in the dark. Only Sam Broome tried to pretend everything would turn out all right, but Mary knew he was acting that way for the children’s benefit.

They ran into a cyclone, and water poured in, threatening to drown them. As the ship pitched and rolled, thunder crashed and lightning momentarily lit up each of their terrified faces. Mary prayed then that the ship would go down and put an end to their suffering.

They heard the crew of the Bounty shouting and swearing as they pitched in to help the Rembang men. Much later she was to hear that many of the Dutch crew went below decks to play cards while the English struggled to keep the ship off the rocks.

Will caught the fever too, crying out in his delirium for his mother. Mary could do nothing to help him, for she couldn’t move and had both the children in her arms. Jamie came out of his anger at his old friend sufficiently to give him sips of water, but the mood of the other men was ugly towards Will.

‘Die thinking of what you brought us to,’ William Moreton shouted out on several occasions. ‘I hope you burn in Hell, you bastard.’

The Rembang sailed into Batavia on 7 November. A whole month at sea had seemed more like a year to them. Apart from the foul conditions they were chained up in, which became worse daily, and the hunger and thirst, it was almost like being blindfolded too, for they had been unable to see out. They didn’t know whether they had passed other islands, big land masses, or whether they were just sailing on the open sea. They had lost all sense of time and distance too.

Hamilton, the ship’s surgeon, came into the hold briefly, holding a handkerchief over his nose against the smell but retching anyway. He barely looked at the men, but ordered that Emmanuel was to be taken to the hospital, and Mary would go with him. The remaining convicts and mutineers were to be moved to a guard ship until such time as a ship bound for England could be found.

‘Charlotte must come with me too,’ Mary pleaded, fearful for her little girl being imprisoned in another ship without her protection. ‘She’ll get sick too without me.’

Hamilton was a hard-faced man with a bushy beard. ‘She’ll get sick in the hospital even faster,’ he said. ‘They call this place the Golgotha of Europe, and the hospital is a stinking hole. But take her with you if you must.’

Mary didn’t understand what he meant then as she had imagined Batavia would be much like Kupang. A month’s sea voyage must mean it wasn’t so very far away, and she’d heard Batavia was the centre of the Dutch East India Company’s operations. But she was soon to discover the difference. The first thing she saw when she was taken up on deck was dead bodies floating in the water, and she vomited over the side.

Kupang was a place Dutch East India Company employees felt fortunate to be posted to. It might be noisy and crowded with people of every nation, but the air was clean and invigorating, the climate perfect. It was also very beautiful just beyond the town, with jungle, mountains and idyllic beaches.

But Batavia sweltered in a hot, steamy atmosphere. The Dutch had built canals through the town, and the stagnant, putrid water bred diseases that killed Europeans like flies. Mary saw that the ship’s crew were reluctant to go ashore, a sure sign it wasn’t a good place. She overheard one of the English sailors who had been here before claim that even the healthiest ship’s crew would be decimated by fever within weeks.

As Mary was led away by two guards, carrying Emmanuel in her arms, with Charlotte trailing along behind, she looked back at her friends on the deck and tears filled her eyes.

They were all gaunt and filthy. The only touch of colour in the group was Samuel Bird’s red hair, but even that was muted by dirt. Nat Lilly and Jamie Cox, the two smallest, looked like little boys. Bill Allen was making a show of looking tough, and James Martin was rubbing his eyes with his fists. Sam Broome and William Moreton were supporting each other. Then there was Will standing apart from them all, swaying on his feet with the fever.

Mary’s heart sank. They all looked so sick that she felt sure she was never going to see any of them again. But the guards dragged her away, and she felt even more demoralized, for the teeming hordes of small, brown-skinned natives who milled around them were sickly-looking too.

The surgeon’s words about Batavia came back to her as she saw crudely constructed shanties instead of fine houses. The sticky heat, the revolting smells and the flies which bombarded her made her feel queasy and terrified for her children.

Her first impression of the two-storey hospital was that the builders had left it only half built. A few windows were shuttered, but the rest were just holes. There was a foul-smelling bonfire smouldering in the yard in front of it, and at least a hundred people were sitting or lying outside. Many of them had filthy, bloodstained bandages around their heads or limbs, flies had settled on those too weak to swat them off, and the sound of their wailing and groaning was terrible to hear. Charlotte clutched her mother’s dress, whimpering with fright, but the guards prodded Mary on through the door, which suggested to her that the people outside were in better condition than those within.

The smell inside made Mary recoil in horror. It was utterly evil, so thick she could barely breathe. She knew then that nothing short of a miracle could prevent Emmanuel from dying. Even on the ship he’d given up crying, he just lay in her arms staring up at her. She had kept trying to make him drink, but he couldn’t keep anything down. One moment he was so hot she could have fried an egg on his forehead, the next he was shivering violently.

An aging nun with a filthy apron over her white habit came forward. The guards said something to her in Dutch, and she peered at Emmanuel, making a tutting sound with her tongue, and indicated that Mary was to follow her.

As they passed several rooms, Mary saw that each held thirty or forty adult patients lying on mats, but she was led into a room at the far end of the hospital where there were only babies and small children being nursed by their mothers.

The nun left after pointing out where the spare mats, washing bowls and buckets were kept. There was no explanation as to where the water was, whether a doctor was coming, or where food came from.

Mary put two mats in a corner, laid Emmanuel down and sat Charlotte beside him, telling her not to move. Then she picked up a bucket and asked the nearest woman in sign language where she could get water.

As night fell Mary lay down with the children. She had got water from a well outside to wash all the ship’s filth off them, and found a grimy kitchen from which she could get a daily meal of rice. Anything else had either to be bought from a formidable-looking native woman who presided in the kitchen, or brought in from outside.

She heard the familiar sound of rats scuttling around the room, even above the moans and cries of the mortally sick, and put her arms protectively around Charlotte and Emmanuel. Her last thoughts before she fell asleep from exhaustion were to wonder how you got food and water if you were a patient without friends or relatives, and if a doctor ever came near the hospital.

She found the answer to her questions in the next day or two by observing and communicating in sign language with the other mothers. A doctor visited occasionally but saw only those with money to pay him. A handful of Dutch nuns did what they could, but faced with the huge numbers of sick people, it was like trying to empty a lake with a thimble.

It was soon apparent to Mary that this was more of a pest house than a hospital. People were sent there in an attempt to contain infection. Those outside in the courtyard were suffering from injuries rather than disease, and often had to wait up to a week to be examined. Most of the inmates died without ever being spoken to, let alone examined, and very few made a recovery. The children’s room was kept reasonably clean by the mothers, but a glance into the adult ones revealed a horrifying sight. Vomit and excreta lay on the rough wood floors, walls were splattered with blood and pus. The cries, screams and delirium of the patients were ignored.

Mary sold her pink dress on her third day there, to buy soup and milk for Emmanuel, and to have some meat and vegetables in the rice for herself and Charlotte. She thought about running away, for it would be easy enough to slip out and mingle with the crowds outside. But she couldn’t bring herself to subject Emmanuel to being carried about in the hot sun, and at least in here it was cooler, with a plentiful supply of water. She had to make his last days as comfortable as possible.

Her isolation was the worst aspect of the hospital. There were as many nationalities as there were in Kupang, but no one she had met so far spoke English. There was no one to turn to for help. Dying children were a fact of life here, it seemed, and even Emmanuel’s ethereal appearance extracted no sympathy. She bathed him with water to cool him down, wrapped him in blankets when he shivered, squeezed water into his mouth drop by drop, but each day he grew weaker.

She desperately wanted to share her anxiety for him with someone. She was terrified to think of what would become of Charlotte if she caught the fever herself. It was no place for a healthy child to be either – daily, Charlotte was subjected to sights that would make even an adult turn pale. It wasn’t fair that she had to spend every day surrounded by desperately sick children. In many ways it was worse for her than being on the ship – at least there she’d had the men to tell her stories and sing to her.

Sometimes Mary thought she might go mad with the noise, smells, heat and filth. She wondered too what she’d do when the money from selling her pink dress ran out. All she could do was blame Will, and vow to herself that when she got out of here she’d kill him.

Towards the end of November, one of the nuns who spoke a few words of English told her Will had been brought into the hospital too. Even if Mary had wanted to see him, she couldn’t, for Emmanuel was far too sick. She had begun bribing one of the other mothers to get the rice and water for her because she didn’t dare leave his side.

On 1 December, Emmanuel died in Mary’s arms. She was rocking him and singing him a lullaby, when he just stopped breathing.

‘What’s wrong, Mumma?’ Charlotte whispered, as she saw tears coursing down her mother’s face.

‘He’s gone,’ was all Mary could say brokenly. ‘Gone to live with the angels.’

She had expected it. She had believed she was prepared. Day by day she had seen his flesh shrink until he looked like a little wizened monkey, yet even in his sickness, his small fingers had felt for hers. Now suddenly those fingers were motionless and cold, and she wanted to scream out her pain.

He hadn’t even survived to see his second birthday, yet in the short time he’d lived, he’d given her so much joy and hope. It wasn’t right that his whole life had been overshadowed by suffering, and that he should have died here in such an ugly, dirty place.

His body was taken from her by one of the nuns, to join others who had died that day, in a communal grave. Mary expected they’d come back for her when the service was due to start. But there was no service, a nun told her later. Too many people died here for that.

The following day, Mary sent Charlotte out into the yard, telling her to stay there till she came back. She was full of rage, and she wanted to find Will to tell him she held him responsible for his only son’s death, before she had to go back to the guard ship.

She found him in a room at the far end of the hospital. The smell coming from it was so evil that she had to cover her nose and mouth when she looked in. There were at least fifty men inside, far more than in any other room she’d seen. They were squashed up together so tightly that they were lying in one another’s vomit and faeces. The groaning and retching was so awful that she was about to turn away when she spotted Will. He was the only one not lying down.

He was almost skeletal, sitting huddled up in a corner wearing nothing but a pair of breeches. His fair hair and beard were matted with filth, his once bright blue eyes pale and red-rimmed with fever. He was twenty-nine, but he looked like a very old man.

Mary had told herself she would laugh if he was dying, she would speed his end by berating him for what he’d done to her. Yet as she stared at him, she wondered why it was she didn’t feel appeased by finding him in such obvious misery.

A memory shot into her mind of him carrying her down to the sea to wash her after Emmanuel was born. He’d been so gentle and loving with her, making her forget she was a convict. That day, and on many more besides, she’d felt equal to any honoured wife and mother back home.

It had become very easy for her to believe Will was all bad. She had made herself forget that he had saved her from rape, married her to protect her, and that his skill and hard work at fishing had kept her from starvation. He had often given Charlotte part of his supper, pretending he wasn’t hungry. She had been proud to be his wife, and despite Will saying he was going to get a ship home when his sentence was up, he didn’t.

All at once she knew she must nurse him. Maybe she wouldn’t be able to forgive him entirely, but for all that they had been to each other in the past, he deserved better than to die like a dog without one kind word.

Mary picked her way gingerly through the filth and bodies to his corner.

‘It’s me, Will,’ she said softly as she reached his side.

She was appalled that such a big, strong man could end up like this. It reminded her of the way the convicts on the Second Fleet had been when they got them off the Scarborough.

‘Mary!’ he said weakly, trying to lift his head. ‘Is it really you?’

‘Yes, it really is me, Will,’ she said, bending towards him. ‘I’ve come to take care of you. First I’ll get you some water, then I’ll get you into a room which isn’t quite so dirty and crowded.’

He caught hold of her hand. ‘Emmanuel! How is he?’

She was touched that his first thought was for their son.

‘He died yesterday,’ she said abruptly.

‘Oh no,’ he groaned, squeezing her hand tighter. ‘I am to blame.’

Part of her wanted to agree, to ease her own pain with spite, but the greater part of her felt soothed by having someone to share her grief with.

‘No,’ she whispered. ‘It was the cruelty of that Captain Edwards, this stinking place, and bad luck.’

He opened his eyes wider and tears ran down his cheeks. ‘You can say that after the way I treated you?’

Mary didn’t trust herself to answer that question. ‘I’ll get some water,’ was all she said.

‘Charlotte! Where is she?’ he asked, looking stricken.

‘She’s fine. I told her to wait outside while I came to see you.’

‘Thank God for that,’ he said, crossing himself.

She got Will drinking water, helped him into a cleaner room, then washed him all over. It was horrifying to see his once big, strong body so emaciated, and she browbeat one of the nuns into giving her a clean shirt for him so that at least he still could have some dignity.

Mary knew he was going to die; since being in this place for three weeks she’d learned the signs. But she told him he would get better, stroked his forehead until he fell asleep and then crept away to get Charlotte.

As she went out into the backyard by the well, she paused for a moment, suddenly aware that this was a perfect time to escape, before Emmanuel’s death was reported and Captain Edwards sent guards for her. She could sell her good boots, buy some provisions, then take off into the jungle with Charlotte. She had made friends with the natives in Kupang, and she could do the same here. Maybe in a few months, with a false name and a plausible story, she could get on a ship out of here.

Mary took a few steps towards Charlotte who was sitting on the ground making mud pies in the damp earth around the well. She was dirty, thin and pale-faced and moved lethargically. She hadn’t been that way in Kupang, and it hurt Mary to see what the prison regime on the ship had done to her. It was another very good reason to run for it now while they still could.

‘Did you see the man?’ Charlotte asked, looking up.

That question caught Mary short. All she had said to the child when she told her to stay out here was that ‘she had to see a man’. If Charlotte had known who the man was, she would have wanted to see him too. She had been asking, sometimes several times each day, when they were going to see Dada again.

Will had always treated Charlotte as if she were his own daughter. When Emmanuel was born he’d made no distinction between the two children. Even when they had rows, he never once used Charlotte’s parentage as a weapon. Will loved Charlotte, and that was evident today when, sick as he was, he wanted to know she was safe.

So how could Mary run out on this man and leave him to die alone?

She lowered the bucket down into the well, filled it and pulled it back up.

‘Let me wash you,’ she said, pulling a rag out of her pocket. ‘We’re going to see Dada.’

The heat seemed to increase with every day, and Will became weaker and weaker. Mary sold her boots to buy food for the three of them, but he never managed more than a couple of spoonfuls before falling asleep again.

When he was awake he would lie there looking at Mary, just the way Emmanuel had. He found it too much of an effort to talk, but he would smile when Mary told him stories about her old neighbours in Fowey, of smuggling yarns she’d heard from her father, and described the harbour and the people who worked there.

Every day, at least two people in the room died, and their places were quickly filled again. When Will was asleep, Mary would wash the others and give them water. It made no difference to her whether they were natives, Chinese or Dutch, they all had that same pitiful, childlike expression in their eyes, and at least when they took their last breath they weren’t alone.

The nuns looked at Mary as if they thought her mad. Yet sometimes they brought Charlotte an egg or some fruit, which seemed to indicate they also had some sympathy for the English convict woman who was risking her own health staying in such a hell-hole to nurse her husband.

‘Is it Christmas yet?’ Will croaked out one evening just as the light was fading.

‘Three more days,’ Mary said.

‘Ma always used to make a plum pudding,’ he said.

Mary smiled, for she could visualize her own mother stirring ingredients in a big basin at the kitchen table.

‘And mine,’ she said.

‘Ma used to tell us all to make a wish as we stirred it,’ Will said in little more than a whisper. ‘If I had one now I’d wish that I told you I married you because I loved you.’

Tears prickled at Mary’s eyes and she wished she could believe him.

‘I’m telling you the truth,’ he said. His eyes were red-rimmed and sunken with the fever and he looked old and haggard, nothing like that big, handsome man she’d married. ‘I fell for you on the Dunkirk. Even if all the beauties in England were lined up for me to choose from, I’d still have picked you.’

Mary’s tears began to fall faster. If this was true, why couldn’t he have told her before?

‘I’m such a fool,’ he sighed, as if knowing what she was thinking. ‘I thought if I told you, you wouldn’t value me. That’s why I used to say I was getting a ship home too. I wanted you to say you couldn’t live without me.’

‘Oh, Will,’ she sighed, and took his hand and kissed it. She knew it was true now, Will wouldn’t dare go to his death with a lie on his conscience.

He drifted off into unconsciousness again then, clearly the effort of talking was too much. Mary lay down beside him and held his hand for some time, thinking over what he’d said.

When she was a young girl, she’d always imagined this thing people called love hit you like a ripe apple falling on your head. Her wild desire for Tench confirmed this idea. Yet was that really love? Wasn’t it more likely that she only felt that way about Tench because he was kind and interested in her at a time when she desperately needed something lovely to take her mind off reality? Would she have continued to feel such passion for him if they’d been able to live together forever?

The circumstances that led up to her marrying Will were hardly romantic. Yet despite her belief it was purely a marriage of convenience, there was passionate love-making, a warm and comfortable relationship, they could talk about anything together, they laughed a great deal. They were friends.

She thought most intelligent people would define that as love.

The first rays of daylight were slanting through the window when Mary felt Will tossing and turning. She touched his forehead and found he was burning hot again, yet shivering at the same time.

‘I’m here,’ she whispered, sitting up and reaching for the cloth and the bucket of water to cool him down.

‘I’m so sorry about what I did,’ he gasped out.

‘It doesn’t matter any more,’ she whispered back, laying the cooling cloth on his brow and stroking back his hair. ‘I’ve forgiven you.’

All at once she realized she had. Like love, it had crept up on her unnoticed.

‘Keep Charlotte safe,’ he managed to get out with great difficulty.

She knew then that this was the end.

‘I married you because I loved you,’ she said, and kissed his hot, cracked lips. ‘I still love you, and I don’t want to live without you.’

She didn’t know if he heard the words he’d always wanted to hear, for he slipped into unconsciousness again. She stayed beside him holding him, her head so close to his heart that she felt it when it stopped beating an hour or two later.