Remember Me(4)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter four





The prisoners were not informed of the date of their transportation until the morning of 7 January, the day they were to be moved to the Charlotte.

Ever since Tench had told Mary when it would be, she’d been in a state of agitation, made far worse because she was unable to share it with anyone else. One moment she was hugging herself with glee that her days on the Dunkirk were numbered, the next she was terrified that the sea voyage and the land at the end of it would be even worse.

As the days slowly passed and she’d still heard nothing official, she began to think Tench might be mistaken. She couldn’t even ask Graham to verify it, for he would undoubtedly take Tench to task for telling her.

Lieutenant Graham was behaving very strangely though. More and more, he fluctuated wildly between tenderness and malice. This in itself seemed to confirm Mary really was leaving.

‘You are just a whore,’ he said with venom one night. ‘You might think you are different from the rest of the women in the hold, but you aren’t, just a damned whore like all the rest.’

Yet on another occasion as she was getting dressed to go back down to the hold, he fell down on his knees before her and clung to her with his face buried in her breast. ‘Oh, Mary,’ he gasped out. ‘I should have done more for you, not used you the way I have.’

On Christmas night he was very drunk and he told her he loved her. That night his love-making was gentle and very tender; he kissed the marks on her ankles made by the shackles and with tears in his eyes, begged her to forgive him for his moments of cruelty to her.

‘There’s nothing to forgive,’ she said. His previous insults hadn’t really hurt her, at least not if she stacked them up against the good things he’d done for her.

‘Then tell me you love me,’ he begged her. ‘Let me believe you came to me for something more than food and clean clothes.’

‘Of course I did,’ she lied, feeling sorry that he wasn’t able to accept their arrangement as she did. ‘But you aren’t free to love me, Spencer, so please don’t give me false hope by saying such things.’

She didn’t love him, she wasn’t sure that she even liked him, yet that night he had moved her, touched some inner part of her. As she made her way back to the hold the following morning, with another, newer grey dress, she wondered whether if they’d met under different circumstances it could have been different.

On the night of 6 January he called her out again, and she expected it was to tell her about the move the following day. But he said nothing about it, offered no endearments, further apologies or good wishes for her future. He just took her roughly, and curtly ordered her back to the hold. If she hadn’t known better, she might have thought he didn’t know what was coming for her.

It was barely light when the guards opened the door of the hold and read out the names of the women who were to go up on deck. Mary wasn’t surprised by the brusque order, but she was startled to hear just twenty names called, and some of those the old and infirm.

The reaction of the women called up on to the deck in a sleet storm was understandable. They were suspicious, puzzled and dismayed, clutching their ragged clothes about them and huddling together for warmth. Mary had to act just like them, for if anyone was to guess she knew where they were going, she’d be in trouble for not telling them. Yet as she stood there shivering on the deck, she was at least glad that Sarah and Bessie had been called, and Aggie, her old adversary, left behind.

Mary Haydon and Catherine Fryer were on the list as well, something Mary viewed with mixed feelings. They made a show of friendship now and then, but she sensed they would always be waiting for her downfall. Among forty women Mary had been able to keep her distance from them, but now the number was down to twenty it would be harder.

Thirty men were called out too, six of whom looked so sick and frail that they could barely be expected to stand, let alone survive a long voyage. But Mary was cheered to see Will Bryant and Jamie Cox among them, though disappointed that James Martin and Samuel Bird were not. Mary had grown to like all four men during her chats with them through the grille: Will and James both made her laugh, and Jamie had become like a younger brother. His crime had been stealing some lace valued at only five shillings, and he worried about how his widowed mother was managing without him. He was so mild and gentle that she was very relieved he could stay under the mantle of big Will’s protection. She hoped James and Samuel would look out for each other when their other friends had gone.

The news that they were to be moved immediately to the Charlotte came from a man Mary had never seen before. He wore civilian clothes covered by a thick cloak, and a three-cornered hat trimmed with gold braid, and seemed ill at ease addressing felons. Perhaps his nervousness was because he expected his announcement would be met with anger. And it was: the majority of the prisoners let out a wail of outrage, for many had already served over half their original sentence and had husbands, wives or children they now feared they would never see again.

As always, protestations were ignored, and the guards moved menacingly closer. Only Mary dared to raise her voice with a question.

‘Sir, are we to receive clothes for this voyage? Some of our number have little more than rags to wear, and I fear they will die of cold before we reach warmer climates.’

The man lowered his spectacles and peered over them at her.

‘Your name?’ he asked.

‘Mary Broad, sir,’ she called back. ‘And some of the women are already sick. Will there be a doctor to see them before we leave?’

‘Everyone will be checked,’ he said, but there was no certainty in his voice. He made no reply to the request for clothes.

It was dusk before all the prisoners from the Dunkirk were ferried out to the Charlotte in Plymouth Sound. Mary’s only thought as she saw the ship was surprise that it was so small, just a three-masted barque perhaps a hundred feet long. But it looked sturdy, and she was so perished with cold that she was incapable of taking anything else in.

The belief they were to set sail within a few days was soon dashed. It seemed the rest of the fleet wasn’t ready and there was a problem with the seamen’s wages. The conditions on the Charlotte were superior to the Dunkirk’s in as much as rations were larger, and the twenty women were not joined by any other prisoners, so they had more space. The men were not so lucky, for they had been joined by prisoners from elsewhere in England, making a total of eighty-eight. But as the Charlotte was anchored out in the Sound, and the hatches to the holds were closed because of bad weather, many of the women suffered from sea sickness immediately. Within days the conditions were almost as foul as those on the Dunkirk.

Week after week passed with no news of sailing. As they were still chained and kept in darkness for most of the day, with the ship wallowing in the waves, any optimism the women had felt at first was soon replaced by despair. Many of them took to their bunks and sought refuge in sleep. Those who found themselves unable to do this squabbled among themselves.

There were times when Mary fervently wished she was still on the Dunkirk. She desperately missed her conversations with Tench and the male prisoners, and even her visits to Graham. Tench was on leave, and on the rare occasions the women were allowed up on deck, the few Marines and sailors on board ignored them.

The brief periods on deck were a torment to Mary. While it was wonderful to breathe clean, salty air, to be able to stand upright and walk, the sight of Cornwall on the horizon was almost too painful to bear. And it was worse still to be forced to return to the stinking hold, never knowing when she’d get out again.

She found herself recalling the most inconsequential things about her home and family as she lay shivering on her bunk. The way Dolly and she used to brush each other’s hair at night, laughing at how it crackled and sparked. Father chopping up wood for the fire, shouting through the window that he should have had boys so they could do it. Mother straining her eyes threading a needle by candlelight. She wouldn’t sew and mend by day when the light was good because she felt it was sinful to spend daylight hours doing something she enjoyed.

Mostly these memories were tender ones, but now and again Mary would be stricken by a bitter one too. Like the time her mother beat both her and Dolly because they’d gone into the sea naked.

On the day it happened Mary hadn’t understood why their mother was so angry. It seemed totally illogical to her. It was after all a very hot day, and surely if she and Dolly had spoiled their new clothes with salt water, that would have been much more serious.

Of course it wasn’t Dolly’s idea: she couldn’t swim, and a paddle was all she wanted. Mary made her do it.

Mary could see them both now. Dolly was about sixteen, and had the Sunday afternoon off from her job in service, so they’d gone for a walk to the beach at Menabilly. Both girls were wearing new pink dresses. Their uncle Peter Broad, who was a mariner and rumoured in the family to be making a lot of money, had brought back the silky material from one of his voyages overseas, and Mother had spent weeks making them.

Dolly was absolutely thrilled with her new dress. She adored the colour pink and the style was a very fashionable one, with a nipped-in waist and a small bustle. Mary wasn’t struck on pink, nor did she want to be dressed identically to her sister. It was bad enough that Dolly always managed to look perfect, whatever she wore, for she was naturally neat, but when they were dressed the same, Mary thought her own defects showed up more. They were very alike in as much as they both had the same dark curly hair, but Dolly was much daintier, with a tiny waist, a graceful way of walking, and big blue eyes that enchanted everyone. Next to her Mary felt plain and awkward.

By the time they got to the beach they were very hot, and Dolly was disappointed that there was no one there to see her in her new finery.

‘It was silly to come here,’ she said peevishly. ‘Now we’ve got to walk all the way back in the heat.’

‘Let’s cool down in the sea then,’ Mary suggested.

Dolly was worried about their dresses of course, but after some persuasion Mary convinced her that they could go beyond the beach and through the woods, then come out again at the water’s edge, take their dresses off and paddle.

One thing led to another. Once they were in a place where they couldn’t be seen, Dolly saw no point in getting her petticoat or shift wet either, for she was sure Mary would splash her. Maybe for that one time she wanted to be as daring as her younger sister, and when Mary took off every stitch of clothing and went in for a dip, Dolly followed her willingly.

It was the most fun they’d ever had together. Mary held Dolly under her stomach and tried to teach her to swim. She couldn’t get the hang of it, so Mary pulled her along in the water by her hands. They were so engrossed in playing that they forgot to keep an eye out for anyone watching.

Later, dressed again, they giggled all the way home, and Dolly told Mary funny stories about some of the other maids where she worked.

Their mother was standing outside the house when they got home, and even from a distance they knew she was very angry. Her mouth was set in a straight line and she had her arms folded across her chest.

‘You little hussies,’ she shrieked at them as she came closer. ‘Get inside at once and explain yourselves.’

It seemed a fisherman in his boat had seen them bathing, and passed on the information to someone else, who hastily reported back to their mother.

‘The shame of it,’ she kept saying over and over again as she clouted them up the stairs and ordered them to remove their clothes.

She beat them with a stick across their bottoms and backs, drawing blood on Dolly. Then she banished Mary to bed without any supper, and Dolly back to her employers.

Mary had thought then that her mother was a cruel kill-joy. She couldn’t see what harm there had been in swimming naked. And she continued to blame her mother when Dolly never seemed to want to go anywhere with her again.

Mary sighed as she remembered that day. She had been so innocent then, barely aware of her own budding breasts, let alone of how desirable Dolly was. She certainly didn’t have any idea that her mother was afraid of what might have happened if her daughters had been spotted by a couple of sailors.

But she knew now, and understood what animals men could be. It seemed to her that almost everything her mother had tried to warn her about had happened. Even the absence of the menses.

Mother had always been vague about what happened between men and women, but she had warned them about what she called ‘funny business’, and said when the menses didn’t arrive it meant a girl was having a baby.

Mary tried to convince herself this couldn’t be so, that perhaps it was only the result of the anxiety of waiting for the ship to sail. But by March she was forced to face the possibility that she was expecting Graham’s child, and she consulted Sarah.

‘I reckon you are,’ she said, looking at Mary thoughtfully. ‘You poor cow, I’d throw myself overboard in the chains if I thought I was. I’ve heard tell you can get a reprieve from hanging because of your belly, but I never heard of anyone getting off transportation because of it.’

Mary’s heart sank even further then, for she had expected Sarah to pooh-pooh her fears. ‘Well, if I am to have it, I’d rather have it here than on the Dunkirk,’ she said defiantly. She had witnessed Lucy Perkins giving birth there and the horror of it hadn’t left her. Lucy was not released from her chains, and after some twenty hours of labour her baby was stillborn. Lucy died a few days later. No doctor was called, the only help she’d had was from the other women. Sarah had been one of them. ‘Besides, you’ll help me, won’t you?’

‘Of course I will,’ Sarah said quickly, perhaps remembering that birth too. ‘You’re strong and healthy, you’ll be all right.’

Mary lay awake all that night worrying. Not so much about the birth, but what Tench would think of her when he found out. She would never stand a chance with him now.

*

It was the start of May, just after Mary’s twenty-first birthday, when they finally heard they were to sail on Sunday the 13th to join the rest of the fleet. There would be eleven ships in all, four of them carrying nearly 600 convicts and a full company of Marines, some with their wives and children, and the rest carrying stores and provisions for the first two years.

During the long wait, most of the other prisoners had written home, or if they couldn’t write, had others write letters for them. One day back in April while Mary and the other women were allowed up on deck for exercise, Tench had suggested writing one for Mary, but she refused his offer.

‘It’s better they don’t know where I’m bound,’ she said, looking sadly towards Cornwall across the choppy sea. A green haze of spring had suddenly appeared on the land in the last few days, and she thought nostalgically of primroses on grassy banks, birds nesting, and newborn lambs out on the moors. It seemed unbelievable that she was to be torn away from the land she loved so well. ‘Better for them to think I don’t care about them any more than to imagine me in chains.’

Tench glanced down at her chains and sighed. ‘Maybe you’re right. But I think my mother would sooner know I was alive and thinking of her, even if I was on a prison ship.’

Mary felt even sadder at his words. Before long her belly would be swollen and he’d see she was having a baby. She doubted he would want to continue to be her friend then. She could just about cope with never seeing her family again, but she didn’t think she could stand to be rejected by Tench too.

As the Charlotte finally weighed anchor and slipped out of Plymouth Sound, many of the women were crying and saying their goodbyes to England forever.

‘I shall come back,’ Mary said firmly. ‘I swear it.’

While many of the women grumbled even more about sea sickness, the sound of the wind in the sails, and the cuts and bruises they got from falls in bad weather, Mary found herself exhilarated once the ship got underway. The sound of wind in canvas was like music to her and she delighted in watching the bows cleave through the clear water.

The captain of the ship, a Royal Naval officer called Gilbert, was a humane man and he ordered the prisoners’ chains to be removed, and only put back on as punishment for bad behaviour, or when they reached port. And as the ship sailed down the coast of France and the weather improved, the hatches were opened up again and the stink in the holds gradually dispersed.

Mary had always loved sailing, but she had never been in anything bigger than a fishing boat, and then only for a few hours at a time. It was very different on a big ship, for you could move about and even find quiet hideaways between coiled copes and lockers to get away from everyone else.

All at once she understood why her father had always eagerly anticipated his next voyage. It was exciting to feel the deck roll beneath her feet, and there was a kind of awe in seeing the wind harnessed to drive the ship along and the way everyone from the lowest sailor to the captain worked as one to maintain her speed and direction. The Charlotte was one of the slowest ships in the fleet, and the men had to work hard to keep up. Yet striving to hold their position was a challenge, and Mary could see the pride in their faces each time they managed to outrun the Scarborough or the Lady Penryn.

But it was the freedom to be up on deck for long periods which Mary appreciated above all else. She could cope with the hold at night, lying wrapped in a blanket between Bessie and Sarah; it wasn’t so terrible if she’d been outside nearly all day.

Up on deck she was free from the carping and squabbling of the other women. She could feel the wind in her hair, the sun on her face, and she forgot the filth and smells below. Her fears for the future vanished like a feather tossed up into the wind. She felt as free as the seabirds who followed in the ship’s wake.

The sounds on deck were almost as clamorous as those below: the roar of the sea, shouts from sailors, the rasps of pulled ropes and the creaking of sails. But they were good sounds, and the wind and sea spray were so clean and pure that she felt intoxicated.

She was glad most of the women found the sea frightening and the wind too cold to stay up there for long. Alone, gripping the deck rail, she could pretend to herself that she was an heiress taking a trip to Spain or even America. She could tell herself truthfully that she was doing what she’d always wanted to do, travelling the world.

Once they were underway, Mary found the sailors very much like the men back in Fowey, strong, wiry, friendly souls who grinned at her cheerfully. Without other women around she sometimes got opportunities to talk to them and ask them questions about the route to Botany Bay. Some of them were only too happy to tell her about the ports along the way they had visited before, and explained that they had to go right across the Atlantic Ocean to Rio, instead of down the African coast, to take advantage of the Trade Winds. Mary wondered how many of them had originally been press-ganged into the Navy, for they seemed to have some sympathy for the prisoners, and resentment towards most of the Marines who had precious little to do on the voyage.

Many of the Marines had brought their wives and children along too. The women looked fearful whenever they took a walk along the decks, and Mary felt sorry for them even if they were too snooty to smile. They were as much prisoners as she was, but while she knew just how harmless most of the real prisoners were, these women probably imagined they were all desperadoes, waiting for an opportunity to take over the ship and kill every soul on board.

Mary was glad that she seldom saw Tench on deck, for she could feel her body changing, even if it wasn’t apparent to anyone else. Her breasts were fuller, her belly had a curve to it. She was dismayed that her liaison with Graham had led to this predicament, something she’d never really considered could happen to her, but she was becoming resigned to it. Part of this acceptance was because she’d been brought up to believe that all babies were a gift from God and therefore must be welcomed wholeheartedly. Whilst she had some fears about the delivery, and her own ability to be a good mother, she felt strangely warmed by the prospect of having someone all her own to love and nurture. In good weather she would find a sheltered place to sit up on deck, and lapse into day-dreams about her child. She hoped for a boy, and imagined him a little like Luke, a son of one of the Marines.

Luke was seven, a sturdy boy with dark hair and blue eyes, who smiled at her when his mother wasn’t looking. Mary liked to watch him trying to help the sailors – he was clearly as keen on sailing as she had been as a girl. As the ship sailed down the coast of France to Spain and the weather became warmer, Luke’s mother often sat with him on deck, helping him to read and write. Mary wished then that she had such skills to pass on to her child.

It was fear for her baby’s safety that finally made her approach Surgeon White. Her father had always said that ships’ surgeons were either butchers or drunks, but she had never seen White drunk. His jovial face, and his gentle manner when he checked her health just before sailing, didn’t appear to belong to a butcher, either.

She hadn’t told anyone but Sarah of her predicament, and she was certain no one, especially not Tench, had guessed. But however embarrassing it was to admit it to the doctor, she realized she must face up to it.

‘I think I’m with child,’ she blurted out, after first asking him if he could give her something for a cut on her foot which wouldn’t heal.

He raised one bushy grey eyebrow, then asked her a few questions and got her to lie down so he could feel her belly.

‘Will I be all right?’ she asked when he made no comment.

‘Of course you will, a birth at sea is no different to one anywhere else,’ he said a little sharply. ‘I’d say it is due in early September, so we’ll be somewhere warmer and more congenial by then. You are strong and healthy, Mary, you’ll be fine.’

Mary realized then that she had probably conceived at Christmas, the night Spencer Graham had been his most loving.

‘Who is the father?’ the surgeon asked, his sharp dark eyes boring into her as if he’d read her thoughts. ‘You must say, Mary, for the father must be made responsible. If it is another convict you can be married, and a Marine can be made to give the child his name.’

It was surprising to Mary that anyone should care who’d got her pregnant, and even more so that they would take any man to task for it. But she wasn’t prepared to name Graham. Without him she wouldn’t have survived the Dunkirk, and then there were his wife and children who didn’t deserve the hurt of knowing he’d been unfaithful.

‘His name, Mary?’ White said more firmly.

‘I don’t know who the father is,’ she said, folding her arms in a gesture of defiance.

‘I don’t believe that of you,’ he said reprovingly. ‘Some of the other women I might, but not you. Now tell me and leave me to deal with it.’

‘I won’t,’ she said stubbornly.

White tutted. ‘Your loyalty is admirable but misplaced, Mary. Do you want your child to have “bastard” on his record of birth?’

‘It’s no worse than having a convict for a mother,’ she retorted.

White shook his head, then dismissed her, with only the parting shot that she must think on it and come back to him if she changed her mind.

The day following her visit to the surgeon, a storm broke out, and once more the hatches were battened down and Mary was forced to stay in the hold. After the freedom of the deck it was hideous to be trapped again in darkness with the women, most of whom were in the throes of sea sickness. The ship rolled and pitched, the slop buckets overturned, and icy sea water rushed in, soaking them all. All Mary could do was clutch her blanket more tightly round her, cover her nose against the smells, and pray for the storm to pass quickly.

It took three weeks to reach Santa Cruz in Tenerife, the ship’s first port of call, by which time Mary had got to know a couple of the Devonshire sailors quite well. It was from them she learned that on one of the other transport ships the male convicts had broken through the bulkheads to get at the females, even before they sailed. They said too that the women who had been brought down from the London prisons were vicious, hardened criminals, always fighting among themselves, ready to sell themselves to anyone for a tot of rum.

This was frightening to Mary, for she had imagined the prisoners on the other ships to be no different to those on the Charlotte. Some of those were bad enough, she knew they’d happily steal pennies from a dead person’s eyes. But at least she knew which ones to watch, and she felt secure in the knowledge that Captain Gilbert would never allow the male prisoners on his ship to threaten the women.

Although a humane man, he was very strict. On the few occasions when male prisoners were on deck at the same time as women, they were watched carefully by the Marines for any misbehaviour. And the threat of being put back in chains or receiving a flogging was enough to deter both male and female from taking any risks.

Yet like on the Dunkirk, there were illicit relationships, formed not with the officers, but the Marines and sailors. Mary Haydon and Catherine Fryer were two of the worst offenders, going with any man who would have them. Neither Mary nor Sarah chose to go down this route; they laughed together about it, and said if they couldn’t have an officer then they didn’t want anyone. The truth of the matter was that they didn’t have to fight for survival any more. They had enough to eat now, water to wash with, and after a day on the deck in the sunshine it was preferable to go back to the hold at night than be humiliated and mauled by a rum-soaked sailor.

The only male prisoner that Mary saw often was Will Bryant, and occasionally Jamie Cox was with him too. The rest of the men weren’t allowed up on deck for long. Whether this was because they outnumbered the crew, or that Captain Gilbert felt the women prisoners and the Marines’ families needed fresh air more, Mary didn’t know, but Will got special privileges. It seemed he had talked his way into being allowed to do some fishing to supplement the ship’s rations, so he spent a good part of every day on deck. Mary admired his resourcefulness, and thought they had a lot in common.

When the ship dropped anchor in Santa Cruz to take on fresh water and more provisions, the ship’s company were free to go ashore, and once again the prisoners were chained and the hatches closed. It was June and the heat was suffocating, and to be forced to lie sweltering in the darkness after the comparative freedom they’d enjoyed before was intolerable. For Mary it was even more unbearable as now that her belly was swelling she found it impossible to get comfortable on the hard bench, and the lack of fresh air made her nauseous.

But as they set sail again to Rio in South America, the chains were removed and they were allowed on deck again. One afternoon, Mary was sitting dozing in the sunshine when she heard Will Bryant swearing because his fishing net was torn. She got up and made her way back to the stern where he was sitting and offered to mend it for him.

He had become even more attractive during the voyage. The increased rations had put flesh back on his body, his eyes were as blue as the sky above, his fair hair and beard bleached by the sun and his skin a golden-brown. He also had an impudent grin and a great deal of cheek.

‘You know how to mend a net?’ he asked, looking surprised.

‘Would any girl from Fowey not know how to?’ she laughed.

Mary thought that it was because she was usefully employed mending the net that no one came over and ordered them apart. She and Will spent the whole afternoon chatting together, mostly about Cornwall.

‘You’re looking very bonny,’ Will said suddenly. ‘When’s the little ’un due?’

Mary was stricken with sudden embarrassment. She hadn’t realized anyone other than Surgeon White and Sarah knew. If Will had guessed, maybe Tench knew too!

‘September,’ she murmured, blushing to the roots of her hair. ‘How did you know?’

‘I’ve got eyes,’ Will laughed. ‘It ain’t something you can hide forever, not when the wind blows your dress close to you.’

Mary felt a little queasy. ‘Does everyone know?’

Will shrugged. ‘Dunno. Why? Are you scared?’

‘A bit,’ she admitted. ‘I don’t want folk to think badly of me, and I don’t know much about babies.’

‘Don’t you trouble yourself about what folk think,’ he said with a grin. ‘There’ll be plenty of other women having a babby afore we get there. As for not knowing about babbies, reckon that comes natural like. The other women will help you too, so don’t you fret about nothing.’

Mary was touched that he could be sensitive, she’d always thought of him as being something of a hard man. A little later he told her he’d heard that a convict on the Alexander, another ship in the fleet, had hidden on the deck in Tenerife and lowered himself into the sea later when it was dark and stolen the rowing boat tied to the stern.

‘Damn great lummox gave himself away by going to a Dutch ship and asking to be taken aboard,’ Will laughed. ‘I’d have made for the town and hidden up till the fleet was gone.’

‘I used to think about escape all the time on the Dunkirk,’ Mary admitted. ‘There’s no point in thinking on it now, not in my condition. But as soon as the baby’s born, I’ll be watching for an opportunity again.’

‘I’ll wait to see what Botany Bay’s like first,’ Will said. ‘If I can fish, build a decent place to live, grow a few vegetables, it might not be so bad.’

‘But we don’t know what the prisoners on the other transports are like,’ Mary pointed out. ‘All us lot are from Devon and Cornwall. None of us are real bad ’uns. But I’ve heard tell the women on the Friendship are a tough lot, mostly from London. They got put in irons for fighting among themselves. Once we go ashore in Botany Bay we’ll have them to put up with.’

‘Reckon you can handle most kinds of folk,’ Will said. ‘I can too. We’ll get by.’

It was only a few days later that Tench spoke to Mary up on deck. He asked if she was enjoying the voyage, and explained that he hadn’t had much opportunity to be on deck as he had many duties elsewhere. ‘Are you feeling well?’ he asked, looking at her intently. ‘The surgeon told me you were expecting a child.’

Mary could only nod. While to some extent she was relieved it was out in the open, she was afraid that he would question her as White had done.

‘I don’t pass judgement on others,’ he said gently, as if guessing what she was thinking. ‘I’m just concerned about you. You are lucky White is aboard this ship, he’s a good surgeon. Are you getting enough to eat?’

Mary nodded again. She didn’t trust herself to speak.

‘If you need anything, come to me,’ he said, patting her on the shoulder. ‘I’ll try and get you some fruit in Rio. Scurvy is a menace on these long voyages. But Captain Gilbert appears to be more aware of all our needs than most sea captains.’

He walked away then, and as Mary watched his slim back, the neatness of his dark hair and the cleanliness of his white breeches, she wished it could have been his child she was carrying.

There were some terrible storms on the way to Rio. The ship pitched and rolled in the heavy seas, and water rushed into the holds, sweeping the women off their bunks. Again and again they thought they would all perish – every crack of the ship’s timbers appeared to be evidence she was breaking up. Even Mary, who hadn’t suffered from sea sickness before, fell prey to it, retching until she had nothing more to bring up, so weak she could barely move.

But the storms passed and then there were periods of calm when the ship barely moved at all. It was on one of those days, as Mary stood at the deck rail watching the rest of the fleet, and keeping an eye out for dolphins and porpoises, that Tench suggested she looked among the male prisoners for a husband.

He didn’t often get the opportunity to speak to her, and even when he did it was never for more than a few minutes, but since the day when he’d told her he knew of her pregnancy, he usually slipped her something when he saw her. Sometimes it was a piece of hard cheese, or a couple of ship’s biscuits; on two occasions it had been a hard-boiled egg. That he cared about her health was enough for Mary. She didn’t want him getting a reprimand from the captain.

‘Have you considered how it will be when we get to Botany Bay?’ Tench began, looking not at her but out to sea and the rest of the fleet marooned in the calm. ‘I mean, have you considered how many more men there will be than women?’

She shook her head.

‘There will be three to every woman,’ he went on, frowning as if deeply concerned by this. ‘I suspect it may prove difficult for you women.’

Mary realized with some shock that he was alluding to the likelihood of rape. ‘Won’t you Marines look after us?’ she asked.

‘We’ll do our best,’ he said seriously. ‘But even with the best will in the world we won’t be able to be everywhere, all of the time.’

Mary shuddered. She knew from Will that many of the men were very desperate characters, but then so were many of the women. Theft of food and belongings was the main thing she’d thought about, but now Tench had made her aware that stealing wasn’t going to be the only problem.

‘You’d do well to consider getting wed,’ he said.

For one brief second she thought it was a proposal, and her heart leaped.

‘Wed?’ she repeated.

‘To one of the prisoners, of course,’ he said quickly. ‘Your baby will need a father.’

Mary knew she was blushing and she hoped he didn’t know why. ‘I hardly know any of them,’ she said indignantly.

Tench looked over his shoulder, checking to see who was watching them. ‘I must go now,’ he said. ‘But think about what I’ve said, will you?’

He walked away before Mary could say anything more.

Mary did think hard about what Tench had said. The more she thought about it, the more sense his words made. Men who had been locked away from women for so long were likely to be dangerous, and so were some of the women too.

It was Tench she wanted, she felt she would love him forever and no other man could make her feel that way. But she was a realist; he might like her, maybe even have some romantic feelings for her, but it would take more time than she’d got to make him love her enough to step over the line and take a convict woman. Besides, he was due to go back to England after three years, and she’d still have another four years of her sentence to complete.

There was only one convict she’d seen that she could admire, and that was Will Bryant. He was strong and capable, and he could read and write, he had a real trade in fishing, and he shared her love of boats and the sea. He was also handsome, and he was a natural leader.

The more she thought about Will, the more certain she became that he would be the ideal husband. Of course he wasn’t going to see her as much of a catch, she’d have a child which wasn’t his for a start. Nor was she that pretty. But there had to be some way to make him see she’d be an asset to him.

All through the eight weeks to Rio, Mary thought of little else but how she was going to persuade Will to become her husband. Because of her condition, Surgeon White gave her permission to stay on deck all day in good weather and have a larger share of rations. This meant she saw Will almost every day, and she mended his nets, gutted the fish for him, often gave him some of her extra food, and flattered him.

Almost daily she found some new facet in Will. His bragging could be wearing, he thought he could do almost anything better than another man, but he was strong, practical and knowledgeable. Yet he had a gentle side too. He always inquired how she was feeling, and once he’d asked if he could put his hand on her belly to feel the baby kick, and looked astounded when he felt it. He was protective of those weaker than himself, and he was a jolly man, rarely down in the mouth about anything.

When the ship had docked in Rio, the chains went on again, hatches were locked, and the crew went ashore. From time to time the prisoners were allowed up on deck for short periods and those who had money could buy produce from the swarthy men who came alongside the ship in little boats to barter with them.

Some of the more fortunate convicts had relatives close enough to Devonport to bring new clothing, food, money and other items for them before the ship sailed. A few had money they’d managed to hang on to throughout their time in prison and the hulk. Will was one of these – he told Mary he’d kept it in a pouch hidden beneath his shirt. He bought oranges and gave half of them to Mary. He also bought a length of white cotton and handed it to her. ‘To make some baby clothes,’ he said with a strangely shy smile.

When Tench came back on board, a little fragile from all the drinking and carousing he’d done with the other men ashore, he too had a present for her. A blanket for the baby.

‘Will bought me cotton to make some clothes,’ she added after she’d thanked him, biting back tears of gratitude. ‘I’m lucky to have two such good friends.’

‘Will’s the man you should marry,’ Tench said abruptly, taking her completely by surprise.

‘Marry me!’ she exclaimed, as if such a thing had never crossed her mind. ‘Why would he want me when there’s prettier women without a child on the way?’

‘Because you’re clever, good company and steadfast,’ he said, his brown eyes twinkling. ‘Those are the attributes I’d look for in a wife.’

‘What about love?’ she asked, wishing she knew how to flirt the way she’d seen other women do to lure the man they wanted.

‘I believe love comes when two people are completely in tune with one another,’ he said earnestly. ‘I think many people mistake lust for love. The two are very different.’

‘But don’t they go together?’ she asked.

‘Sometimes, if you are very fortunate,’ he smiled. ‘Sadly most of us get one or the other, not both. Or worse still, feel all that for someone who just isn’t suitable.’

Mary had a feeling he was trying to tell her that was how he felt about her.

‘But surely if you feel that way they can become suitable?’ she said wildly.

‘Maybe.’ He shrugged his shoulders and looked across the harbour to Rio. ‘If you could take that person to some new place where your backgrounds didn’t matter.’

Their conversation was halted abruptly by Captain Gilbert coming aboard. Tench had to go and greet him, and Mary slipped back to the stern of the ship to gaze at Rio across the bay and wonder if Tench had wished he could take her there.

But if he had, why was he encouraging her to think of Will? Surely that wasn’t what men did? But Mary had long ago realized that Tench wasn’t like other men.

They sailed out of Rio harbour on 4 September, and three days later, in the evening, Mary went into labour.

It wasn’t so bad at first. She lay quietly next to Bessie and even managed to doze. But by the early hours of the morning she was in real pain, and she had to get up and hold on to one of the ship’s beams to alleviate it. Surgeon White was called at mid-morning, but he pronounced everything to be normal and said first babies always took a long time. His only preparations were to order two women, who just happened to be Mary Haydon and Catherine Fryer, to collect some straw for Mary to lie on.

The ship was rolling in a heavy swell, and Mary and Catherine were entirely unsympathetic towards Mary. To make matters worse, the hatches were closed because of high winds, so the hold was dark and stuffy.

‘You ’ad the pleasure,’ Mary Haydon said spitefully. ‘Now you got to suffer the pain.’

Mary had always been aware that these two women had continued to hold her responsible for their plight, however much they had insisted in the past that it was done and forgotten. Every time Mary had received gratitude or praise from the other women, she had sensed their jealousy. She guessed they saw her labour as a chance to get even, hoping she’d make an exhibition of herself and lose some of the admiration the others had for her.

But Mary wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction of that. When the next pain came she gritted her teeth and bore it silently.

On and on it went, each pain a little stronger until she was forced to lie down and cling to the knotted rope one of the older women had thoughtfully tied around a beam for her to pull on. Sarah sat beside her, bathing her head, and making her take sips of the brackish water.

‘It won’t be long now,’ she whispered encouragingly. ‘And if you want to scream, you do it, don’t pay no mind to those two witches.’

Mary thought she might die of the agony, and wondered in a brief moment between pains how women could bring themselves to have more than one child. But then, just as she felt unable to bear any more, there was a new sensation, one of wanting to bear down.

She had heard other women, including her mother, speak of this part, and knew it meant the baby was fighting its way out. Suddenly she felt a wave of tenderness for the child within her, and a determination to expel him or her as quickly as possible.

‘It’s coming now,’ she whispered to Sarah, and as the next pain came she clenched her teeth together, brought her legs up, pulled on the rope and bore down hard.

She was vaguely aware that the other women were having their evening meal beyond the blanket Sarah had thoughtfully hung up to give her some privacy – she could smell the stew and hear them chewing. The rolling and the bucking of the ship seemed to echo what was going on with her body, and she was glad of the darkness hiding what she knew must be a very ungainly sight.

She heard Sarah order someone to go and get the surgeon, but it was some time before he came, and he left almost immediately after giving Sarah some curt instructions and a lantern to see by.

‘Don’t leave me,’ Mary screamed as he walked away.

‘The women will deal with it,’ he said sharply. ‘I can’t stand upright in here.’

‘Bastard,’ Sarah spat at his retreating back. But she leaned over to wipe Mary’s face tenderly. ‘You still got me,’ she said soothingly. ‘I know what to do, love, you’ll be all right.’

The pain was red-hot, and it seemed to Mary she could almost see it glowing through her skin as Sarah washed her bottom and thighs with cool water. As she gave one long huge push she felt the baby coming, and heard Sarah’s cry that she could see its head.

Mary had the sensation that a big slippery fish was being drawn out of her. The pain had ceased, and she could hear voices from behind the blanket curtain.

‘You’ve got a little girl,’ Sarah crowed delightedly. ‘A fine big one too.’

The light from the lantern was dim, but Mary could see Sarah holding up what looked like a skinned rabbit. Then all at once its cry burst out, an angry, defiant yell as if dismayed to find itself in a dark ship’s hold.

‘She’ll make it,’ Sarah said with relief in her voice, and put the baby in Mary’s arms. ‘Now, what are you going to call her?’

Mary couldn’t reply for a moment. She could only stare down in awe at her baby. She had a shock of black hair, she looked purple in the dim light, and her little fists were pummelling the air. It seemed unbelievable that this angry little scrap was something which had grown within her.

‘I’ll call her Charlotte,’ she said eventually. ‘After the ship.’ Then, as she got a flash of Graham’s face looking tenderly at her the night their baby was probably conceived, she added, ‘Charlotte Spence.’

‘Spence?’ Sarah asked. ‘What sort of name is that?’

Mary didn’t trust herself to answer that one. ‘Could I have a drink now? I’m parched.’

It was very late at night when Charles White got back to his cabin, having returned to the hold to find that Mary’s baby had arrived safely. He poured himself a glass of whisky, then sat down to write up his diary.

‘8 September,’ he began. ‘Mary Broad. Delivered of a fine girl.’

He sat for a moment, unable to think of anything else that had happened during the day. Mary, lying cradling her baby in that filthy, stinking hold, filled his mind to the exclusion of all else. He had been called to many births over the years, from women of quality in fine houses to peasant women in hovels, and he’d helped them all and been touched by the wonder of new life. He felt some shame that he’d left Mary to fend for herself, for she was clearly a good woman, a cut above her companions with her intelligence and her calm, reserved manner.

Perhaps it was because he knew it was unlikely the infant would survive more than a few weeks. Infant mortality was high enough on dry land, but on a ship with rats, lice, foul water and every kind of disease lurking, waiting to find some weakened recipient, a newborn baby stood little chance. There had been surprisingly few deaths so far, most of those attributed to sickness brought with the convicts from the prison hulks. But there was still a long way to go before they reached Botany Bay.

And when they arrived, things would get far tougher. There were houses to be built, land to be tilled and planted. The natives might be hostile, the weather inclement. It was hardly an ideal environment in which to rear young children.

But he thought Mary would make an excellent mother, she had so many remarkable qualities. He wondered again who the baby’s father was, and considered Tench, for he had been on the Dunkirk with Mary. He had obviously been waiting for news of her, and his eyes had lit up when White told him about the new arrival. He’d been eager to hear the sex and name of the baby and whether Mary was well.

Yet for all that, he couldn’t see Tench as the kind to take a convict woman. He was an upright, honest young man, with a great deal of natural dignity, more interested in putting the world to rights than philandering. But he did have some feelings for Mary Broad, that much was evident. Understandable really, when even a crusty old surgeon like himself found her intriguing.

Charles sighed deeply. There were so many unknown factors in this grand idea of emptying out the prison ships and sending all the undesirables to the other side of the world. No one really knew about the country’s climate and its native people, or whether the land could be cultivated. It was a huge gamble, not just with the prisoners’ lives, for precious few people back in England cared a jot about them, but with those who were sent to keep them in line.

Captain Arthur Phillip, the commanding officer of the whole fleet, had himself expressed concern that there weren’t sufficient provisions, tools and clothing in the supply ships, and that the quality of them all was poor. Nor were there many skilled craftsmen among the prisoners.

Charles stared gloomily at his unwritten diary. If all the prisoners had been like Mary Broad and Will Bryant, intelligent, resourceful people, then the project might have a chance of success. Sadly, a huge proportion of them were complete scoundrels, the slime at the bottom of England’s barrel. In truth, the idea was doomed before it had even started.

As the ship sailed towards the port of Cape Town five weeks later, Mary stood at the rails with Charlotte in her arms and marvelled at the beauty of the scene before her.

The sun was setting, the sky pink and mauve, and all eleven ships were close to one another now, their sails billowing in the wind. The sea was turquoise, and a school of dolphins were leaping and diving around them, as if putting on a special show. They had been seeing dolphins and whales too for some days now, a sight Mary never tired of.

‘And you aren’t even watching,’ she said tenderly to Charlotte, who was fast asleep, wrapped in the blanket Tench had given her.

The horrors of her daughter’s birth were quite forgotten now. Mary had ample milk and Charlotte was thriving. But then Mary devoted her entire attention to her child.

She never would have believed that she could feel so much for her baby. She rarely put her down, for she didn’t trust the other women not to stick their dirty fingers in her mouth, or drop her if they picked her up. One of the sailors had made a little crib for her to sleep in, but though Mary would put her in it up on deck during the day, with a cloth hung over it to keep the sun off, at night she was too worried about the rats, and kept Charlotte firmly in her own arms.

Captain Gilbert had said she could be baptized when they got to Cape Town, as the clergyman for the fleet would be coming on board there. That had touched Mary: she had expected that a prisoner’s child would be treated with disdain, as if it wasn’t quite human.

‘We’ll be able to see Table Mountain by tomorrow morning, I expect,’ Tench said suddenly by her elbow. Mary hadn’t seen or heard him coming towards her. ‘It looks just like a table too,’ he went on. ‘Flat on the top, and when there’s mist hanging around it makes a tablecloth, at least so I’m told. I haven’t been to Cape Town before.’

‘You’ll be able to explore it,’ Mary said wistfully. ‘See all those wild animals and things.’

She knew Tench liked exploring and writing in his diary about where he had been and what he’d seen. She had never met a man with so much enthusiasm for new places and strange things.

‘You won’t always be a prisoner, Mary,’ he said, his voice soft with sympathy. ‘Once the settlement in Botany Bay is thriving, and your sentence is up, there will be opportunities for a woman like you to make good.’

‘You’ll have gone home by then,’ she said, trying to keep her tone light.

‘I expect so,’ he said. ‘But you’ll be part of a new community, and I’ve no doubt you will be married too. Perhaps little Charlotte will have a brother or sister.’ He bent his head closer to the baby in Mary’s arms and kissed her forehead. ‘Go for Will Bryant, Mary, he’s the best man for you.’

Tench had said nothing more about Will since long before Charlotte was born, but the fact that he’d obviously kept it in his mind proved to Mary he was completely serious about it.

‘How would I go about it, just supposing I thought that was a good plan?’ she asked.

Tench thought for a moment. ‘I’d lay my cards on the table. Point out the advantages for him having a wife. Especially one like you.’

Mary half smiled. ‘Back home I would’ve been thought of as the worst possible choice for a man. I’m not good at cooking and sewing or womanly things.’

‘There won’t be much call for domestic talents in Botany Bay,’ Tench said with a wry smile. ‘It will be the toughest, the most adaptable that do well there. You’ve got backbone, Mary, and plenty of determination. Will knows that, he admires you. I don’t think he’ll take much persuading.’

‘How would you feel if a woman asked you to marry her?’ she asked him, smiling as she asked, as if it was only banter.

‘Now, that would depend who asked me,’ he laughed. ‘If she was rich and beautiful I’d be flattered.’

‘So a poor, plain convict girl would have no chance?’ she said, trying to sound as if she was joking, but she could hear a plaintive note in her own voice.

He didn’t answer and Mary was shamed.

‘I’m sorry, I’ve embarrassed you,’ she said.

To her surprise he turned to face her and laid the palm of his hand gently against her cheek. ‘I said I’d be flattered by someone rich and beautiful asking me. I’d also be just as flattered if it was a convict girl I really liked. But I wouldn’t agree to either,’ he said, looking right into her eyes. ‘Not because I didn’t care enough for her, or thought she was too lowly for me, but because I’m not the marrying kind, Mary. There’s too many places I want to see to settle down with anyone.’

‘You might end up a lonely old man,’ Mary said, swallowing down a lump in her throat and fighting back tears.

‘Yes, that’s true, but at least I wouldn’t have left a wife lonely without me while I explored the world,’ he said, and smiled. ‘Or children without a real father.’

Charlotte’s baptism took place after they had been anchored at Cape Town for three days. The Reverend Richard Johnson came aboard on Sunday morning during a service for the entire ship’s company and the prisoners.

Mary was the only prisoner not in chains. Hers had been removed for the duration of the service, but would be put back on immediately afterwards. She had made an effort with her appearance, washing her hair till it shone, and wearing the grey cotton dress given to her by Graham on the Dunkirk. She wished it wasn’t so crumpled as she’d had to conceal it in the hold when given a ‘slop’, the shapeless, rough dresses doled out to the women prisoners.

The Reverend Johnson directed his sermon to the prisoners, saying that Botany Bay was a golden opportunity for them all, if they turned away from the wickedness which had caused them to be sent there. He urged the men to choose a wife, for only in matrimony would they find true happiness and contentment.

Mary became aware of Will’s eyes on her as she stepped forward holding Charlotte in her arms for the christening ceremony. As the Reverend Johnson poured some water on the baby’s head and she began to howl lustily, drowning his words, Mary offered up a silent prayer, not just for Charlotte’s safety, but that Will would want her for his wife.

It was a week before Mary had any opportunity to speak to Will as they had run into some rough weather and had had to stay below deck. It was still a little precarious climbing up the companionway with a baby in her arms as the steps were slippery, but she was desperate to get out into the fresh air.

Will was on deck fishing again. Hearing footsteps behind him, he looked round and grinned. ‘Good to be out of there, eh!’

‘I couldn’t stand another minute of it down there,’ Mary said with a laugh. ‘It’s like breathing week-old soup.’

‘You and I are made of the same stuff,’ Will said, looking at her in approval. ‘How’s the little ’un?’

‘Doing fine,’ Mary said, looking down at the sleeping baby she had tied across her in a shawl for safety. ‘I wonder if there’s any babies on the other ships?’

‘Several, I heard,’ Will said. ‘So at least Charlotte will have some playmates when she’s bigger.’

‘And if folk get married like the Reverend suggested, there’ll soon be more,’ Mary added.

Will laughed. ‘A lot won’t wait for a wedding service. Reckon we’ll be overrun with babbies afore the first year’s over.’

‘But there’s three men to every woman,’ Mary said pointedly. ‘I reckon wives will be in great demand.’

She felt nervous now, sure this was the moment, but afraid to say what was on her mind.

‘I’ll do all right,’ Will said. ‘I’ll have them lining up for me.’

Mary felt a stab of irritation at his arrogance. ‘You’d better choose carefully then,’ she said sharply. ‘From what I’ve seen below these decks few of the women have any common sense, and the ones on the other ships may be even more stupid.’

‘You wouldn’t be a bad prospect for any man,’ Will said unexpectedly. ‘You’ve got a good head on you, and you ain’t a slattern like most.’

Mary took a deep breath to steady herself. ‘I’d be a good prospect for you,’ she blurted out. ‘I know boats and fishing. We come from the same place, the officers like us both.’

Will seemed staggered at such a suggestion. He stared at her open-mouthed.

‘Are you wanting me to wed you?’ he said at length, his voice a little strained.

‘You could do a lot worse,’ she said, blushing furiously. ‘I’m healthy and strong, I can work hard for what I want. I know I’ve got Charlotte and maybe a man doesn’t want another’s around…’ She stopped suddenly, unable to think of any other good reason why he should choose her, and ashamed she had to beg.

‘Well I never,’ Will exclaimed, but he grinned broadly. ‘I thought you was too proud to bend to anyone.’

‘I’m not bending,’ she said quickly. ‘I like you, and it’s practical.’

‘I’d want a wife who does more than just like me,’ he said. ‘I want her to be hot for me.’

Mary was prepared to go to some lengths to get Will to agree to her proposition, but she didn’t feel able to pretend a great passion for him. Faced with his smug grin, she felt foolish and inadequate.

‘We’ve been good friends for over a year,’ she said after a few minutes’ thought. ‘Would you want a friend to lie to you?’

‘Of course not,’ he said, though he was still grinning smugly. ‘But I’d still like a wife who was hot for me.’

‘Maybe I could be, in time,’ she said wildly, blushing scarlet because she was sure he’d rush off to the other men and tell them what had passed between them. ‘We haven’t had a chance to get to know each other like that yet.’ But before she could say anything further, a sudden shout of warning came from one of the Marines – clearly they were too close together for the man’s comfort.

‘I’ve got to go,’ Mary said quickly. ‘Think on it.’

The weeks that followed were hard, with violent storms and squalls, contrasting with periods of calm when the ship barely moved. The fresh-water ration was cut to conserve it, the food was becoming rotten. Mary had times of extreme anxiety when her milk looked as if it might fail, and she was frightened too of what lay ahead.

Most of the other women were so empty-headed they appeared to imagine they were going to a place that would be ready for them. Mary knew they would be living in tents, and that it was likely some of the foodstuffs taken with them would have perished on the voyage, the same way as many of the animals had. Before Charlotte’s birth she had never dwelt on the possibility of the ship being wrecked, but now the fear was with her in every storm. The waters they were sailing in were barely charted, none of the crew had been there before. For all anyone knew, the natives in Botany Bay could be cannibals, there could be wild animals that would tear them apart.

But even worse in one respect was that Will hadn’t said another word to her about her proposition. She didn’t know if that meant he was still thinking about it, or if he found it too ludicrous to contemplate.