Remember Me(22)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter twenty-two





‘That wretched man again!’ Mrs Wilkes exclaimed in exasperation at the hammering on her front door. ‘Only yesterday I tried to tell him he wasn’t doing your reputation any good by calling here at all hours. And here he is again, on a Sunday!’

It was 18 August and very hot. Mrs Wilkes and Mary were sitting out in the cool of the backyard with some sewing. They had been talking about Mary’s friends still in Newgate. Mary had become a little tearful, afraid that their pardon would never come and that they would begin to believe she had stopped caring for them.

Mrs Wilkes, like Boswell, thought visiting was a bad idea, given the high risk of infection, but she offered to write them a letter for Mary. At the moment they heard the rapping on the door, Mary was thinking of all the things she had to tell them.

Mary smiled at her landlady’s outburst, for she knew perfectly well that Mrs Wilkes enjoyed having neighbours gossiping about Boswell calling so often. He was, after all, famous and a gentleman, and noon, whether it was Sunday or not, was a respectable time to call.

‘I’ll go,’ Mary said, getting up. ‘Shall I tell him to go away?’

‘No, of course not,’ Mrs Wilkes said hurriedly. ‘You must take him into the parlour and I’ll bring you in some tea.’

But Boswell was not alone this time. He had a burly, florid-faced man with him, who in a somewhat loud checked jacket, matching breeches and a very poorly fitting dull brown wig, looked like a tradesman.

‘Good day, Mary,’ Boswell said, lifting his hat. She thought he looked flustered. ‘This is Mr Castel, a glazier by trade, and a native of Fowey. He wishes to give you certain news of your family, and he insisted we came right away to see you.’

Mary looked from one man’s face to the other, noting how hot and agitated they both looked. Boswell clearly wasn’t happy about this man’s insistence on coming to see her, and she guessed he suspected some kind of confidence trick. There had been several occasions previously when people had come to him claiming they knew Mary and asking for her address. So for Boswell to have brought this man to her door, there had to be some kind of credence to his story.

Mary invited them into the parlour and once they were sitting down, she looked hard at the man. ‘So you are from Fowey, Mr Castel?’ she said. ‘I don’t know any family of that name.’

‘I left many years ago, when you would have been just a little girl,’ he said calmly. ‘But I know your sister Dolly very well.’

Mary gasped, despite herself. ‘You know Dolly? How? Where is she?’

‘I have only known her since she came to London,’ he said, mopping perspiration from his face with a handkerchief. ‘She is in service for Mrs Morgan of Bedford Square. I met her there when I was replacing some glass, and we got to talking about Fowey.’

‘Dolly’s here in London!’ Mary could hardly believe what she was hearing, and even though Boswell was giving her a warning look as if he didn’t want her to get too excited, she couldn’t help but be.

‘It seems Mr Castel wants your permission to write to your family in Fowey and inform them about you,’ Boswell butted in, with a very cynical tone in his voice. ‘He claims he also knows a relative of yours there, Edward Puckey.’

‘Ned!’ Again Mary gasped. She and Dolly had been bridesmaids at her cousin Ned’s wedding.

‘You have a relative called Edward Puckey?’ Boswell asked.

Mary nodded. ‘My cousin,’ she said.

Mr Castel looked at Mary and his frown indicated that he felt aggrieved. ‘It seems Mr Boswell doesn’t trust me. I knew Ned Puckey when I was a lad, though he’s a few years younger than me. It was through that connection that I got to know Dolly so well. All I want now is to see two sisters reunited and pass on news that could be advantageous to you.’

Setting aside Mr Castel’s clothing and the ill-fitting wig, which did suggest questionable taste, Mary thought he had an honest face. He looked directly at her, he wasn’t licking his lips or fidgeting nervously. He had also retained his Cornish accent.

‘What news?’ she asked suspiciously, and glanced at Boswell. He was tense, sweating profusely, and his frown suggested he wished to silence this man.

‘That your family have come into a fortune.’

Mary laughed out loud and rocked back in her chair. ‘I can’t believe that, even if I wish to believe you know Dolly,’ she said.

‘It’s true,’ he insisted. ‘Dolly told me. Your uncle, Peter Broad, died while you were in Botany Bay, and he left a fortune to your family.’

Mary stopped laughing suddenly. Her uncle Peter, her father’s brother, was a master mariner, which meant he was hired to take control of a ship, unlike her father who was just an ordinary seaman. She had not known Uncle Peter very well as he was away at sea for very long periods. But whenever he came home she remembered that he always came visiting with presents of food, sweetmeats and other luxuries. It had been Uncle Peter who brought the pink silky material her mother had used to make the dresses she and Dolly wore the day they went swimming naked. It was always said around Fowey that he was rich too, in fact whenever her mother spoke of wanting something out of the ordinary, her father had always said jokingly, ‘You’d better bide a while, my dear, until Peter comes home.’

‘I don’t know what to say,’ Mary exclaimed. ‘This has come as a shock, Mr Castel.’

‘I’m sure it has,’ he said. ‘But believe me, there is no mischief in my desire to impart this news to you, only to try and bring a family together. You see, Dolly and I are friends. We met some four years ago and she told me she had a sister who had gone off to work in Plymouth and hadn’t been seen since. She said her parents still fretted about you, not knowing whether you were alive or dead.’

‘They didn’t know what happened to me?’ Mary wasn’t sure whether this pleased or saddened her.

Mr Castel shook his head. ‘According to what Dolly told me, your father went looking for you in Plymouth, but without success. Dolly had the idea you’d come to London, and that was mainly why she took a position here, hoping she’d run into you one day. But as the years passed that hope faded. I saw how important you were to her, that first day I met her. The moment she heard my voice and knew I was from Cornwall, she went out of her way to talk to me.’

Mary nodded. That sounded logical to her. For if she met someone with a Cornish accent she knew she’d immediately want to talk to them. ‘Did you know then where I was?’

Castel shook his head. ‘Indeed not. With a girl like Dolly you wouldn’t ever think she could have a sister that might have been transported.’

‘Why?’ Mary asked.

‘Well, she’s so…’ He stopped, clearly unable to find the right words.

‘Honest?’ Mary decided to help him out. ‘You didn’t think she could have a sister who was a thief?’

Castel looked embarrassed. ‘I didn’t mean that,’ he said hurriedly. ‘Dolly’s timid and industrious. I imagined her sister was just like her.’

Mary was sure now that this man knew Dolly. ‘Timid and industrious’ was a good description of her. Mary had often described her to people as a mouse!

‘So why has it taken you so long to come forward?’ Mary asked. It was some fourteen months since the news of her arrival in Newgate had been in the newspapers. The pardon, when there had been more news, was over three months ago.

‘You can call me slow if you like,’ he said, and looked sheepish. ‘Because I read all about “the girl from Botany Bay” in the newspapers, even noticed your name was the same as Dolly’s sister. But I didn’t think for one minute it could be the right Mary Broad.’

‘You didn’t?’ Mary said in some surprise.

He fingered his stiff collar nervously. ‘It was too extraordinary. No one knowing Dolly would think her sister could be that daring. Besides, Mary Broad is a common enough name and the paper I read didn’t say you were from Cornwall.’

‘So what finally made you think I might be her sister?’ Mary asked curiously.

‘A poem,’ he said. He looked at Boswell as if hoping for some support, but Boswell didn’t offer any.

‘A poem?’ Mary said. She guessed he meant one of those that Boswell had mentioned, though he’d never read one of them to her.

‘They’ve been sticking them up all over the place since your pardon,’ he said awkwardly. ‘But I never really read one properly till they put one up by my shop. I can’t explain why exactly, but I got this feeling about it which wouldn’t go away. I didn’t want to show it to Dolly, in case she got upset that her sister might have been transported. Or that the poem suggested you were more than friends with Mr Boswell. So I went round to his house this morning to ask his opinion.’

Mary looked at Boswell questioningly.

‘The first thing he asked me was if you were from Fowey,’ Boswell said with a despairing kind of shrug. ‘I agreed you were, and then he told me of Dolly. I wanted to come alone to see you, but Mr Castel is a persistent man, my dear. Now, my suggestion is that I check out his story, and return to you when I have proof.’

Later that same day, Mary was helping Mrs Wilkes wash the supper things when someone knocked on the front door again. ‘I’ll wager that’s Boswell again,’ she said with a worried look. ‘Maybe he’s found out more about Castel.’

Mary had been anxious all day. She wanted to believe Mr Castel, but as Boswell had seemed so suspicious about his claims, she had tried very hard not to build up her hopes.

She hurried down the hall, removing her apron as she went, but as she opened the door, her knees went weak.

There was Mr Castel again, and by his side was Dolly.

There was no mistaking her sister, she looked just the same as she had nine years ago, when she stood waving goodbye to Mary as she took the boat to Plymouth. She had kept the image of that small upturned nose, and those blue eyes locked inside her all these years. All Mary could do was gasp and cover her face with her hands.

‘Mary!’ Dolly said softly. ‘It really is you! I was so afraid Mr Castel was mistaken.’

All at once Mary was enveloped in her older sister’s arms, and they stood on the doorstep rocking each other, both sobbing out all the years of separation.

‘Now, will you please come inside?’ Mrs Wilkes said firmly from behind them. ‘This is all very heart-warming, but I don’t wish it to be the talk of the street.’

Once in the parlour, the two women could only hug each other and cry for some minutes. Then they began to laugh hysterically through their tears. Everything was jumbled, half questions only half answered, a nonsensical struggle to bridge the gap of nine years.

Mr Castel had explained to Dolly some of what had happened to Mary, but his version, which had come from newspapers, wasn’t accurate. Although Mary tried to give her sister the truth of it, Dolly was clearly too shocked and bewildered to take it all in.

‘I look so much older than you now,’ Mary said at one point, gazing at her sister with pride.

They had always been alike in as much as they both had dark curly hair like their mother’s and the same sturdy build, and were a little taller than most other girls in the village. But Dolly’s eyes were blue, not grey like Mary’s, and then of course there was Dolly’s more pronounced upturned nose.

The differences were in their characters. Dolly had always been the meek, practical, obedient one. For as far back as Mary could remember, she had always looked neat and tidy, her hair braided tightly back off her face, her pinafore spotless. She skirted round mud, avoided brambles, and would sit quietly on the doorstep watching as Mary played rough games with boys and tore and muddied her clothes.

Dolly was still dressed in a sober and neat manner, as befitted her position as a lady’s maid. Her blue pin-tucked dress had a high neck with tiny pearl buttons and she wore well-polished black button boots and a small straw hat with just a plain blue ribbon round it. Mary knew her to be thirty, but she looked closer to twenty, her complexion clear and unlined.

‘I haven’t had the hard times like you,’ Dolly said, her eyes awash with tears. ‘You are so thin, Mary, I remembered your face being plump and bonny.’

With Mr Castel and Mrs Wilkes looking on, it was impossible for the sisters to talk frankly. Dolly started to ask about the two children, but stopped half-way through. Likewise, Mary wanted to ask so much about her mother and father, and whether Dolly had a sweetheart, but she couldn’t in front of Mrs Wilkes and Castel.

Then, in the midst of it, Boswell came back.

Mrs Wilkes opened the door to him, and Mary heard her telling him that Dolly was already here. ‘Oh, it’s wonderful,’ she gushed. ‘They’ve been crying and laughing fit to bust.’

Boswell looked petulant when he came into the room. He had asked Castel this morning to let him arrange the meeting between Mary and Dolly. An hour ago he had gone to Bedford Square to see Dolly, only to find that Castel had already been there, and had brought the young woman here. But faced with Mary’s joy, he recovered his natural good humour and apologized to Castel for doubting him. He then turned his considerable charm on Dolly, flattering her with compliments and saying that if he had appeared obstructive it was only because he had to protect Mary.

Mrs Wilkes opened a bottle of port wine to celebrate, and suggested that maybe it would be wise for the two men to leave Mary and Dolly to talk.

‘But I promised Mrs Morgan I would escort Dolly home,’ Castel said quickly, and from the adoring way he looked at her, it was obvious to everyone that he was sweet on her.

‘I can’t stay much longer anyway, I’m afraid,’ Dolly said, turning to Mary. ‘Mrs Morgan expects me home by half past nine. But I can spend my day off on Wednesday with you.’

‘Well, perhaps, Dolly, before you have to go, you’d like to tell Mary about the inheritance from your uncle?’ Boswell suggested. ‘It’s impertinent of me to ask, but I think it’s something Mary would like cleared up.’

‘It’s quite true,’ Dolly said, clutching at Mary’s hand as if afraid that if she let go her younger sister would disappear again. ‘Uncle Peter did leave all his money to Father. A considerable sum too. Father got Ned to write to me, explaining it all and urging me to come home as there was no longer a need for me to work.’

‘So why didn’t you go, Dolly?’ Boswell asked. He couldn’t quite bring himself to ask crassly how much money there was, especially in front of Castel.

She blushed. ‘I like London,’ she said, ‘and my position. I’m very happy with the Morgans. I didn’t want to be an old maid in Fowey.’

‘I doubt if you would remain unmarried for long,’ Boswell said gallantly.

‘Mary would understand,’ Dolly said, looking to her sister for support.

‘Do you, Mary?’ Boswell asked.

‘I do,’ she said, giving her sister a wry smile. ‘All the years I’ve been away I’ve always imagined you married with a parcel of children. That was what you wanted as a young girl. But whatever the reason you left, you’ve made a good life for yourself. To go back would be like burying yourself alive.’

‘That’s just how it would be,’ Dolly agreed earnestly. ‘I couldn’t change my station in life just because Father had money. We might live in a bigger house, have better clothes and food. But who would I have as friends? My old ones are poor. They would avoid me. The rich people would turn their noses up at me.’

Mary nodded in sympathy. She thought this was very likely. But there was also the question of fortune hunters. Dolly would want a man to love her for herself, not for her money. Mary guessed it could be quite difficult to be certain of a man’s real feelings until well after the wedding.

‘You don’t ever intend to go back?’ Boswell asked Dolly. He wondered if there was already a man in her life. Castel clearly had designs on her, but Boswell didn’t think the attraction was mutual.

‘Maybe in a few years,’ she said, then looking at Mary she smiled. ‘But I think Mary should go. At least to see our folks. They will be so overjoyed to know she is safe and well.’

Mary asked if she was sure their parents didn’t know about what had happened to her.

‘They certainly didn’t when I heard from Father last year. You see, he mentioned you, and said he hoped it was a husband and children which had prevented you returning from Plymouth.’

Mary thought on this for a moment. It seemed almost laughable that her parents had imagined her just forty miles away in Plymouth, when in fact she had been right round the world. If she were to go home, how on earth was she ever going to be able to explain everything she’d done and seen? It was hard enough to deal with her memories, the contrasts, and the sheer distances she’d covered in her life, herself. She didn’t think her mother, who’d never been further than twenty miles from Fowey, could possibly grasp it.

‘Might Father have discovered about me since the letter he sent you?’ she asked.

‘Maybe,’ Dolly said with a frown. ‘Mr Castel told me there was much about you in the newspapers. But if I didn’t hear about it, here in London, why should they, so far away?’

Mary sighed. ‘Perhaps it’s better that they never know about me, Dolly. It’s too shocking.’

‘Better to be a little shocked than to go through life believing their daughter deserted them or is dead,’ Dolly insisted.

Boswell left with Castel and Dolly later, and the two sisters arranged that Dolly would come again on her day off. After they’d gone Mary went off to her room, for she very much wanted to be alone.

She sat by the open window, looking out into the darkness. Sounds of carriage wheels, chatter, laughter, babies crying, and the tinkle of a distant piano wafted up to her on the still, warm air as it had on many an evening since she’d been with Mrs Wilkes. It was the sound of family life going on all around her, and until tonight she had always felt terribly alone when she heard it because fate had estranged her from her own.

Sometimes she had even had cynical thoughts about her freedom. She had thought that although she could walk around the town, she was still shackled mentally by guilt, shame and grief. She knew too that she was utterly dependent on Boswell, and that made him another gaoler of sorts. A kindly one, of course, but he decided everything, where she would go, who she would meet, and provided for her too. Until now she hadn’t been able to see any way that she could step out of that dependency and into a life that was truly her own.

That chance had come now.

‘But are you brave enough to go home?’ she murmured to herself. It was one thing to tell it all to Dolly, she was still young, without any hard-held prejudices. Her father would probably be as understanding too, for he had sailed to many different countries, met men from all walks of life.

But her mother was a different story. Her world was a tiny one, bound by the church and her neighbours. Would she be able to open her mind wide enough to accept that Mary had received far more punishment for her original crime than it warranted? Could she forgive and remain resolute in the face of village gossip?

Mary doubted it. Grace Broad had never been a forgiving or tolerant person. As a child Mary had been considered odd because she liked to hang around the fishermen, went swimming, climbed trees and wandered away from home. Her father had laughed and said she ought to have been a boy, but her mother’s face had always been dark with disapproval.

Yet Mary could understand why that was now. Becoming a mother herself had made sense of many things which once seemed so odd. A mother’s role was to nurture and protect, showing praise and disapproval were merely ways of guiding a child to keep them safe. She had no doubt now that her mother had been frightened by her daughter’s wilfulness. Maybe she always feared it would get Mary into serious trouble. And she was right of course.

Mary also doubted that the gossips in Fowey would see heroism in the daring escape, as people in London did. They would brood on the aspects of prison hulks, chains and the shadow of the gallows, whisper that she’d spent much of her time with a gang of men, and that would be interpreted as her being a wanton woman.

A tear trickled down Mary’s cheek. She knew she’d been foolhardy and selfish as a young girl, but all that was gone now, and she so wanted to be taken back into her family. She had never been able to speak to anyone about the agony of losing her two children, but perhaps if her mother enfolded her in her arms, she’d be able to tell her. She wanted to tell the whole family the place they had in her heart throughout her imprisonment. Perhaps as an adult she could make amends for all the sadness and worry she’d brought them.

Mary also felt that she needed the familiar peace and loveliness of her own village to cleanse her soul of the ugliness trapped within it. She may have had forgiveness from the King and the government, but that meant little without the forgiveness of her own people.

During the next few days Mary’s thoughts became even more confused. The day spent alone with Dolly was one of the best in her whole life, as they talked through everything that had happened to them both in the last nine years.

Dolly had always been held up to Mary as a paragon of feminine virtue. Her skill with the needle, the care she took in cleaning and laundry, her ability to cook tasty meals from almost nothing, and of course her lack of insolence and her sweet nature had all served to make her seem dull company in the youthful Mary’s eyes. Yet nine years on, Mary found her older sister had a far more lively mind than she had supposed.

Dolly had used her position as lady’s maid to become acquainted with all aspects of the gentry’s way of life. There was little she didn’t know, from how to dress a fashionable woman’s hair to the running of a large household. But she had picked up a great deal more than domestic skills from her master and mistress. She knew their secrets, their views on everything from religion to politics. Through them she had become educated, and she was no longer an innocent country girl. She might still be timid, in as much as she wouldn’t speak out of turn or go out alone at night, but she had had two lovers.

She confided in Mary that one was a younger brother of her master, and it had made her realize that an intelligent woman could control her own destiny. She said she had no intention of marrying a humble footman or even a tradesman like Mr Castel and spending the rest of her life bringing up children in reduced circumstances. She said that if she didn’t find a gentleman as a husband within the next few years, she intended to start up her own business, perhaps a bureau for domestic staff.

Dolly said that her father wouldn’t reveal the size of the bequest for security reasons. In the letter he’d had written for him, all he would say was that it was enough to live on very comfortably and that if she required a ‘nest egg’ to advance her own position, she had only to ask.

As Mary listened to Dolly, she had no doubt that her sister could start her own business. Beneath her sweet, calm exterior there was a great deal of determination and good sense. So when Dolly insisted that Mary should go home to Cornwall, she was inclined to believe she was right.

Dolly had foresight and imagination. She said that with just a little capital, Mary could run a boarding-house down in Cornwall. She suggested Truro as many people passed through there, or even Falmouth where she could cater for ships’ officers and their families. Another idea was that their parents might be persuaded to buy a small farm, and Mary could grow produce to sell.

‘I might even join you in it if London begins to pall for me,’ Dolly laughed. ‘What you’ve got to keep in mind, Mary, is that you aren’t an ordinary woman, you are brave, strong and sharp-witted. That’s more than enough to succeed. If you stay in London, the only positions open to you will be lowly ones, like kitchen maid. You’ll hate it. You can’t kow-tow to a grumpy cook or a snooty mistress, you’ve seen too much for that. Be brave once more and go home.’

September came in with glorious weather, and whenever Dolly could get away from her mistress for a few hours, she spent them with Mary. The shared laughter, the pleasure of discovering how much they had in common, eased Mary’s grief for her children, and she felt her old optimism and strength returning.

Mr Castel, with Boswell’s help, had written to Ned Puckey to ask him to pass on the news of Mary to the Broads. Boswell had written to his friend the Reverend John Baron of Lostwithiel, seeking his help too in making sure Grace and William Broad were willing to receive Mary home.

Yet long before either the Puckeys or the Reverend Baron could have received these letters, one arrived at Boswell’s home from Elizabeth Puckey, Ned’s wife. It seemed her family had only heard about Mary when she was pardoned. At that time the story about her transportation and subsequent escape was in a Cornish newspaper. Now they were very anxious to know how and where she was. Elizabeth urged that Mary should come home to her family, who as she put it ‘were now in very different circumstances, due to a sizeable inheritance’. She said Mary would have the warmest of welcomes from all members of the family and that William and Grace Broad were very relieved and happy to know their younger daughter had survived her terrible troubles.

While that letter assured Mary of her family’s affection for her, and made her wholeheartedly wish to see them, she was still torn. She liked London, she wanted to stay close to Dolly, Boswell was such a good friend and such stimulating company, and then there was Mrs Wilkes too, of whom she’d grown very fond.

Boswell showed her a life which didn’t exist in Cornwall. He took her to the theatre, coffee houses and restaurants. With Dolly she could recapture her girlhood, discuss men, clothes and the many differences in their lives now to the one they were born to.

Mrs Wilkes was a mother–aunt figure. She was wise and kind, knowledgeable and refined too. Mary sensed she wanted her to stay with her, and help her run her boarding-house. This was very appealing to Mary, for she felt safe there, but as Dolly pointed out, she would have to do the rough work, emptying slop pails, carrying hot water, doing laundry and scrubbing floors. Dolly said she should aspire to more than that.

Then there were the men still in Newgate. Mary didn’t feel able to leave London while they remained in prison. Soon after she met up with Dolly again, despite advice from both Boswell and Mrs Wilkes, she went to visit them. After living in such comfortable surroundings, she was horrified and appalled by Newgate, and it seemed impossible that she could have borne those terrible conditions for the best part of a year. Whilst she knew Boswell was still battling for her friends, there was no pardon in sight yet.

Sam was so demoralized that he’d applied to enlist in the New South Wales Corps, a body of men who were to take over the role of the Marines and police the new colony. His reason for this change of heart was that he’d come to see England had nothing to offer men like him, and out in New South Wales as a free man he would be given a grant of land.

James was still working on his memoirs. He said Nat and Bill had a different idea every day for what they were going to do when they became free. Mary was terribly afraid that day would never come, but the men insisted it would, that they were happy enough, and that she must get on with her own life and not be held back by thoughts of them.

It was Sam who managed to convince her that she must separate her life from theirs. He walked her to the gates alone and talked to her.

‘We will be pardoned,’ he insisted. ‘But you must not wait for that, Mary. Us four won’t stay together when we are released, we’ve been held together this long by circumstance, not by choice. I want to go back to New South Wales, James talks of Ireland. Bill will go to Berkshire and Nat back home to Essex. We have shared the biggest adventure and the hardest times imaginable, but once free that will be just a memory, nothing more.’

Mary knew he was telling her that they’d only become so close because of adversity, and that was the only thing they had in common. She guessed too that he wanted to distance himself from the others because he was afraid they could become a liability. Deep down inside her she shared that fear, though she wouldn’t have voiced it.

‘You saved my life on the wharf in Port Jackson,’ he said, his voice growing thick with emotion. ‘I hope one day I’ll be telling my children about you. But go now, and don’t come back to visit again. You’ve done enough for all of us.’

Mary cupped her two hands round his bony face and kissed his lips lightly. ‘Good luck, Sam,’ she said tenderly, remembering how she’d once seen him as her safety net. She knew now that she didn’t need one.

Towards the end of September the glorious weather ended suddenly with a huge storm, uprooting trees in the parks and flooding the streets. It continued to rain even after the gales had abated, and all at once Mary saw for herself the conditions Boswell had described on her release from Newgate.

The streets were treacherous, cloying mud mixed with human and animal refuse, showering anyone rash enough to attempt walking anywhere. Fever sprang up in the poorest districts and Boswell told Mary that the pits where the dead were taken for mass burial were filling rapidly. An evil stench hung in the air constantly, along with a sulphurous fog that swept in each night.

Mary was virtually imprisoned in the house in Little Titchfield Street, and it came to her that unless she left for Cornwall soon, before winter set in, she would be here till the spring. Her parents were getting old, and she would never forgive herself if something happened to either of them before she got there. And then there was the call of Cornwall itself, a siren that sang its beguiling song each night when she closed her eyes, urging her to return to where she belonged.

She would imagine herself standing in the bows of a ship coming into Fowey harbour just as daylight was fading and the autumn sun like a huge fiery ball sinking slowly into the sea.

She could see the small town rising up the hill from the quay. Grey stone cottages clustered together, with glimpses of the cobbled streets between them, where children were hurrying home before dark.

Down on the quay the fishermen would be getting ready for the night’s fishing. The landlord of the tavern would be lighting his lamps, and the old men of the town would be hobbling slowly down towards it, raising their caps to any women who might still be abroad.

Mary could almost smell pilchards cooking, she could hear the slap of the waves against the quayside, the shriek of the seagulls and the wind in the trees above the town. She wanted to fill her lungs with that clean, salty air, to hear those Cornish voices, and submerge herself in the simplicity of village life. She didn’t belong in London.

‘I think I must get a passage back to Cornwall,’ Mary said to Boswell one evening when he’d called to see her.

He didn’t say anything for a while, just sat looking quizzically at her. ‘Yes, you should,’ he said eventually. ‘But I don’t want you to go.’

‘Why?’ she asked, thinking perhaps he thought she would have a brighter future in London.

‘Because I’ll miss you,’ he said simply, and to her utmost surprise she saw he had tears in his eyes.

Mary didn’t know what to say. Was he implying he was in love with her? If so, what was she supposed to say or do?

‘You won’t miss me. You can go and visit all those grand friends you’ve neglected for so long,’ she said flippantly.

‘I’ve neglected them because they are all shallow compared to you,’ he said, his voice quivering. ‘You have given me a purpose in my life, opened up so many new vistas.’

‘That is a lovely thing to say,’ she said, a little overwhelmed. ‘But I have even more to thank you for. You gave me back my life.’

He shook his head a little, looking down at his lap. ‘I’ve been something of a fool for most of mine,’ he said in a small voice. ‘But I feel honoured that Fate singled me out to help you. Mary, you are the most astounding person I have ever encountered. You have taken what life threw at you with courage and fortitude. I have never heard you utter a word of blame against anyone.’

‘There is no one to blame,’ she said tartly. ‘Only me for doing wrong.’

He began to laugh. ‘Oh, Mary,’ he spluttered, ‘that is the absolute essence of you. If the whole world was to share your attitude, it would be a far better place. All my life I have been surrounded by those who seek to blame someone for their misfortune. I too have blamed my father, my mother, my dear departed wife, whores, drink, lack of money and even food for my failings. I wish I were a younger man and could start out on the road through life with you at my side.’

He ran his fingers over her hair affectionately, then, picking up a curl, he took a pair of scissors from Mrs Wilkes’s sewing basket on the table beside him and snipped it off.

‘A little memento,’ he said, tucking it into a small purse he took from his pocket.

‘I’ll keep all my special memories of you in here,’ Mary said, putting her hand over her heart. ‘And make sure you get my friends pardoned or I will blame you.’

‘It will come soon,’ he assured her. ‘Henry Dundas has it in hand.’

On the evening of 12 October Mary and Boswell were at Beals Wharf in Southwark where Mary was to board the Anne and Elizabeth, due to sail to Fowey on the early morning tide.

It was a windy, wet night, and they hurried into a tavern nearby for shelter. When Boswell had called to collect Mary and her box of belongings from Little Titchfield Street, he had brought James, his fifteen-year-old son, to meet her.

Young James Boswell had the same beautiful dark eyes and full lips as his father, but he was taller, slender, graceful and clear-skinned. He was understandably shy, but eager to meet her. He said his father had told him and his sisters her whole story, and that they all wished her well for the future.

James arranged to meet up with his father later that evening, and as the cab rattled along the wet, windy streets towards the Thames, Mary was silent, her mind whirling with misgivings. She wasn’t so sure now about returning to Cornwall, and especially about leaving Boswell, her dear friend and saviour. She glanced at him many times during the journey, sorrow welling up unbearably within her. She knew he wasn’t in the best of health. His high colour and the stiffness of his limbs suggested to her that infirmity was catching up with him.

She would see Dolly again, maybe Mrs Wilkes too. But she had a feeling that the few remaining hours before she had to board the boat would be her last with Boswell.

In the tavern, Mary removed the heavy dark green wool cloak Mrs Wilkes had given her. She felt almost as indebted to the kind-hearted woman as she was to Boswell, for she had taught Mary so much. No one in this waterside tavern would take her for a whore or a felon. Everything, from the cloak and bonnet to the warm woollen dress and sturdy boots gave a picture of a genteel governess. Yet Mrs Wilkes had not only chosen the clothes because they were warm and serviceable, but because they made her look attractive too. There was a ruffle of cream lace on the high-necked dress, more lace on her petticoat, and her stockings were a fashionable red. Mary had many more clothes in her box too, and she found it hard to equate the pretty woman she saw reflected in a looking-glass, with the same poor wretch who had once worn rags and fetters.

As they drank rum, sitting side by side on a settle by the roaring fire, a tender current flowed between them. Mary wished she could find the right words to tell Boswell how she felt about him. Boswell, unusually silent, kept his hand covering hers on the settle, a gesture that showed he wanted to hold on to her for as long as he could.

The place reminded Mary of the taverns in Fowey and Plymouth, the flag-stone floor wet from men’s boots, the air thick with smoke, the smell of wet clothes overpowering. Yet it was snug, a friendly place where sailors swapped stories, found a willing woman and drank their hardearned money away. To Mary it was fitting that they should spend their last hours somewhere she found so familiar. The following day Boswell would be back where he belonged, dining in elegant places, drinking coffee with his illustrious friends or sitting at his desk writing again, while her boat battled its way through heavy seas to Cornwall.

‘I have arranged with the Reverend John Baron in Lostwithiel to give you an annuity of ten pounds a year,’ Boswell blurted out suddenly. He took a five-pound note from his pocketbook and pressed it into her hand. ‘This is for the first half year, and you must go to him next April for the next half, and sign your name as I taught you.’

‘But Bozzie,’ she exclaimed in consternation, ‘why? I won’t need it, and I know you aren’t a rich man.’

Even though Boswell was wealthy in comparison to ordinary working people, Mary had discovered he had spent most of his life lurching from one financial crisis to another. Again and again he had come very close to ruin. It was only luck and good friends that had saved him from it.

‘It will give you some security,’ he said. He didn’t add that it was in case things didn’t work out for her in Fowey. Perhaps he was reluctant to point out that was a possibility, but Mary knew that was what he meant.

She thanked him, the lump in her throat making it impossible to say more. She put the bank note into the little reticule Mrs Wilkes had embroidered for her as a leaving present, and drew out a small package tied with a red ribbon.

‘This is a keepsake from me,’ she said softly, pressing it into his hands. ‘It isn’t of any value, but it was the only thing which comforted me during the bad times in Port Jackson.’

Boswell looked curiously at her, noting the tears in her eyes, and then opened the package carefully. All it contained was a few dried crumbling leaves.

‘That was what we called “sweet tea”,’ she explained. ‘I picked the leaves on my last day there before our escape. I kept those last few back throughout the voyage, through Kupang and Batavia, right home to England and Newgate. I wish I was able to give you a gold watch with your name engraved on the back, but these mean more, however humble. Look at them now and then and remember me.’

Boswell retied the package and put it into his pocket. ‘I will keep them forever,’ he said, his voice quavering. ‘But I do not need them to remember you, Mary, you have a very special place in my heart.’

He picked up her hands and held them to his lips, his dark luminous eyes scanning her face as if imprinting it on his mind.

‘I have vowed love to so many women in the past that I hesitate to do so again for fear of trivializing what I feel for you, my dear,’ he said. ‘But true friendship, the purest kind, is sprung from love. It never dies, never tarnishes. It remains even after death.’

Suddenly a loud cheer interrupted the tender moment and both Mary and Boswell looked up to see the men in the bar greeting another two coming in. One was a small, wiry man of about forty-five, the other tall, fair-haired and perhaps ten years younger.

‘The older man is the master of the Anne and Elizabeth, by the name of Job Moyes,’ Boswell said. ‘I met him when I booked your passage. The other is his first mate. I shall invite them over for a bowl of punch. We mustn’t spend our remaining time together in sadness.’

*

Job Moyes and his first mate, John Trelawney, greeted Boswell and Mary with great warmth, and it was clear they knew all about her.

‘It will be a pleasure to have you aboard, Miss Broad,’ Job said, his blue eyes twinkling. ‘We know we’ll be able to call on your sailing skills if we run into heavy weather.’

John Trelawney looked at Mary with frank admiration. ‘You are a great deal smaller and prettier than I expected,’ he said. ‘I hope you’ll tell me of your adventures during our voyage.’

Mary felt a warm glow from his compliment. He was a striking-looking man, with amber-coloured eyes that reminded her of a cat’s, high cheek-bones, very white teeth and thick blond hair tied back at the nape of his neck. His voice was easy on the ear too, deep and resonant, with just enough of a Cornish accent to remind her of home.

The bowl of punch arrived at the table, and Boswell raised a toast to Mary’s future. As he asked Moyes some questions about his cargo, John was looking at Mary in a way that made her heart flutter.

She had fully believed she was incapable of feeling romantically attracted to any man again, and it seemed preposterous that she should feel it now on the eve of her departure from London.

‘What part of Cornwall are you from?’ she asked.

‘Falmouth,’ he said, and smiled, showing his beautiful teeth. ‘But I’ve no one there now, my parents passed on a few years back and my brother has gone to America.’

‘So where do you call home?’ she asked.

‘The Anne and Elizabeth,’ he chuckled. ‘But if I was to settle down in one place, Fowey is where I’d choose.’

‘No wife or sweetheart then?’ She raised one eyebrow questioningly.

He shook his head. ‘I never met a woman who was prepared to accept that the sea was my mistress.’

That phrase jolted something long buried within Mary. She looked at him curiously.

‘I stole that line from your uncle,’ John said. ‘Peter Broad. I sailed under him when I was a lad. He was a good man and taught me all I know.’

Mary gasped. ‘You sailed under my uncle?’

John nodded. ‘And your father too, Mary. He is another good man, and I’m proud to be taking you home to him.’

‘What’s that?’ Boswell asked, picking up the tail-end of the conversation.

‘Just telling Mary I sailed under both her uncle and father, sir,’ John said. ‘But then you know that.’

‘Bozzie,’ Mary said reprovingly, ‘is that why you were so adamant I had to go on this boat?’

His smile was a mischievous one. ‘Would I entrust such a precious cargo to just anyone?’ he asked. ‘I spoke to several ships’ masters before I found Job. I wanted one you would feel at ease with.’

They filled their glasses again and Boswell made the men laugh with a very funny account of what he called ‘his Cornish jaunt’ the previous year.

Mary was happy just to watch and listen. It was good to see the way Boswell sparkled as he told a tale. He had a gift of being able to describe a scene and the people there so well that the listener entered into it too. She was going to miss him, but her trepidation about going home was gone now. Cornwall was where she belonged.

It was after ten when they finally left the tavern to walk to the boat. John carried Mary’s box, walking a little ahead with Moyes, while Mary followed, holding Boswell’s arm.

‘Leave me here,’ she said to him as they got to the boat. ‘Don’t come aboard, you must go back to meet up with James as you promised.’

The wind had blown itself out and the rain had stopped. For once there was no fog, and the moon and stars were clear and bright, making twinkling lights in the inky river. The sound of water slapping gently against the hull reminded her poignantly of that other desperate voyage, something she hadn’t thought of for a very long time.

‘Will you be all right?’ Boswell asked her, his customary confidence deserting him.

‘Of course I will,’ she said, kissing him on the cheek. ‘The sea holds no terrors for me.’

Boswell caught her by the forearms fiercely, his face suddenly more youthful in the blaze of a lighted torch by the boat. ‘If ever you need me, send a message,’ he said.

She nodded. ‘You take care of yourself, Bozzie,’ she said. ‘And say goodbye to James, Bill, Nat and Sam. Tell them I’m sorry I couldn’t be there to celebrate their freedom.’

Mary heard Moyes or John cough and knew they were waiting for her to go aboard. ‘Goodbye, my dear friend,’ she said, kissing him again, this time on the lips. ‘I shall never forget you. You gave me back my life.’

She left him quickly, not trusting herself not to cry. As she reached the deck she turned and waved just once. He was just standing looking up at her, the silver buttons on his coat and his gold watch-chain glistening in the light from the torch. He raised his three-cornered hat and bowed majestically, then turned and walked away.

‘Will you miss London?’ John said at her elbow.

Mary turned to look at him and smiled. She had a feeling that his real question was would she miss grand people like Boswell, not the city itself.

‘No, I don’t think so,’ she said truthfully. ‘I’m glad I’ve seen it, but I prefer a simple life, and people I can be myself with.’

Suddenly, she had the oddest feeling of having been here before. Puzzled, she looked around her, but in the darkness she could see little but the gleam of brass and the whiteness of coiled rope.

‘What’s the matter?’ John asked. ‘Don’t tell me a born sailor like you is disturbed by the movement beneath your feet?’

‘No, of course not,’ she said, then laughed because John’s Cornish burr was enough to jog her memory. The smell of river water, and a man who attracted her, completed the picture from the past.

She was on the deck of the Dunkirk, a girl in rags and chains, setting her heart on an officer with a faint Cornish accent.

‘Let me show you to your cabin,’ John said. ‘You’ll get cold up here.’

All at once Mary felt completely liberated, far more so than when she was released from Newgate. She was going to a cabin, not the hold. Tomorrow at dawn they would set sail, she would eat meals with Moyes, John and the other seamen. And she could use a spoon if she wanted to, because no one here would mind. They would drink rum and swap sailing stories, and she would be the men’s equal.

She began to laugh as she climbed down the steep steps to the cabins.

John stood at the bottom with her box in his arms and laughed too. ‘Are you that happy to be aboard?’ he asked, tawny eyes twinkling. ‘I’m very happy about it. But we expected you’d have had enough of ships to last a lifetime.’

‘I thought I had too,’ Mary replied, with laughter still in her voice. ‘But this one feels like I’m already home.’