Remember Me(8)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter eight





‘He’s a beauty,’ Will said reverently as he cradled his son in his arms. He’d only just got back from fishing all night, and despite being wet, cold and exhausted he was thrilled to find Mary had borne him a son. ‘And he’s brought us luck! I’ve got a fine big mullet for us.’

When Mary shot him an anxious glance, Will grinned. ‘It’s fair do’s. They gave it to me because of the babby. I reckon things will get better for us now.’

Mary relaxed again and smiled. Will had always been affectionate towards Charlotte right from her early days, but he was almost incandescent with pleasure now as he looked down at his own baby. ‘Do you like the name Emmanuel?’ she asked.

‘It’s a real good name,’ he said, looking tenderly first at his son and then at Mary. ‘A hopeful one, and I’ll make sure he learns to write it too.’

That day was a golden one for Mary. The rain stopped, the sun came out and Will carried her down to the sea to wash her. There had been many sweet moments between them in the past, but never this degree of tenderness and care. He made her comfortable in a makeshift bed beneath a gum tree by the hut, tucked Emmanuel into Charlotte’s old crib, then cooked the mullet over the fire with a couple of potatoes he’d managed to get from somewhere. Later he took Charlotte for a walk to tell Surgeon White about the new baby, leaving Mary to sleep.

She didn’t sleep, despite the comfort of the food inside her. Will wasn’t the kind of man who spoke of love, but his actions had told her how he felt. There had been times during her pregnancy when she had felt guilty she was trapping him, but that feeling had gone now she had seen his delight in having his own child. They were a complete family now, and whatever life had in store for them, they would cope with it together.

Tench came to visit later that afternoon.

‘I heard your baby was born,’ he said, looking down at Mary cuddling Emmanuel under the tree. ‘I thank God you are both safe and well.’

‘Isn’t he the bonniest babby you ever saw?’ Will asked as he dandled Charlotte on his knee. ‘I never saw a more lusty one.’

Tench laughed and leaned down to stroke the child’s head. ‘He favours you, Will. The same fair hair and strong body. Mind you take good care of him.’

‘Me too,’ Charlotte said indignantly. They all laughed, for she’d clearly picked up the idea today that her place might be about to be usurped.

‘I’ll always take care of you,’ Will said, picking her up and throwing her into the air. ‘You’re my little princess.’

‘Don’t place too much importance on the rumours that Will is going to run out on you when his time is up,’ Tench said to Mary after Will had wandered off to boast to a few more friends about his son. ‘I don’t believe he’s brave enough to ever leave you.’

Mary wasn’t surprised that Tench had heard the rumours. People stopped at nothing to pass on information here. She wondered what he would think of her if he knew the baby was her secret plan to hold on to Will.

‘I don’t listen to what people say,’ she said stoutly, for she felt so happy today that nothing else seemed to matter.

‘You can apply for land of your own when Will’s free,’ Tench said.

‘What would we do with land?’ Mary replied with a smile. ‘We aren’t farmers. Will’s only happy fishing.’

‘Then he could build his own boat and start his own fishing business. Maybe you could open the first fishmonger’s in New South Wales!’

‘Maybe,’ she replied. She wished she could believe as Tench did that one day there would be a real town here. He seemed to think that once the present problems were solved, the country would attract free settlers, to farm and trade, just as America had. ‘And maybe a ship will arrive tomorrow with animals, ploughs, seed, fruit trees, food for us all, medicine and material to make new clothes,’ she added with more than a touch of sarcasm.

‘The ships will come soon,’ he said, as he always did, but this time there was a lack of conviction in his voice. ‘I really can’t believe England would leave us to perish here.’

*

Emmanuel was baptized a few days later on 4 April, under the same big tree where Mary and Will had been married. As usual on such occasions, everyone was present.

Mary had considered herself poorly dressed for her wedding, but that grey dress had long since fallen apart with wear and become napkins for Charlotte. Its replacement, an issued ‘slop’, a shapeless sack of a dress in coarse cotton, was almost as worn out. One of the more kindly Marines’ wives had given her a red ribbon for her hair, and a piece of flannelette to make a gown for Emmanuel – but for that he would have been wrapped in a piece of rag.

As Mary looked around at the rest of the congregation she saw how much they had all diminished since arriving here. They had in the main been healthy then, eyes bright with excitement and mischief; there was exuberance and hope, even when they were complaining vigorously. Their voices were strong, they argued, fought and laughed, pushing and shoving each other like impatient children. Mary remembered how she had once thought she would never learn so many names.

But it was easy to name every single one now. Death had claimed so many, and the recent removal of scores more to Norfolk Island meant there were perhaps fewer than 150 remaining. Only the number of children and babies had increased, but they were a sorry sight, nothing but huge mournful eyes set in pale, bony faces, legs and arms like little sticks, most sucking their fingers with hunger.

There were no bright eyes anywhere now, not even among the officers. No pushing and shoving or loud voices, just apathetic, gaunt faces, aged radically by the sun and malnutrition. Laughter was a rare sound too, for those who still managed to get their hands on drink no longer wanted merriment, only oblivion. Even the bright colours of clothes were absent, for the finery some had sported that first day had long since turned to grey rags.

Mary thought they had all become like this savage land. As dull and arid as the scrubby bush, with its grey-green gums, as stunted and hopeless as the vegetables they had struggled to grow.

She would have liked to have put the blame on the officers, but even they were thinner and worn-looking too. As for the Marines, she felt even sorrier for them and their wives and families, for they had the same rations as the prisoners, their uniforms were in rags, and they were dying just as fast.

Watkin Tench went out to Dawes Point early the following morning to check the flag pole out on the South Head. He hadn’t slept well, for the christening of Emmanuel Bryant the previous day had unsettled him deeply. While it was good to see Mary and Will’s joy in their little son, a bright spot in an otherwise desperately grim period, if the child didn’t survive, Mary was going to be devastated.

Tench wished he didn’t care so much for her. He had told himself a thousand times that he only felt a bond of friendship with her, but the truth of the matter was that each time he saw her his feelings for her grew stronger. His heart quickened at the sight of her. He felt helpless in the face of her great need for food and decent clothes. She was proud, she didn’t beg for favours, and made light of the deprivation she suffered. Indeed, she made the best of the little she had.

He had even hoped Will’s flogging would harden him in the way it had other men, that he would become a real trouble-maker and Mary would lose her loyalty to him. But instead of prising them apart it seemed to have had the reverse effect, baby Emmanuel being part of it.

If only he could stop weaving such futile day-dreams about taking Mary home with him when his term of office was up. If he were to tell anyone his thoughts of finding a little cottage for them somewhere well away from Plymouth, and telling his friends and family back home that she was the widow of a Marine serving here, they would laugh at him.

But that was what he dwelt on. He imagined Mary blossoming again with good food, lying in his arms each night in a feather bed. When he got to that point of his fantasy he would find himself aroused, imagining himself kissing those small breasts he’d so often glimpsed as she suckled Charlotte.

Tench broke off abruptly from this reverie when he saw the flag had been struck on the flag pole. This signified a ship was either anchored in the cove, or had been spotted out at sea.

In great excitement he ran to the observatory where an astronomical telescope had been erected and hastily trained it on the flag pole. He could see only one man strolling by the pole and to his intense disappointment he knew it couldn’t be a ship from England, or there would be more frantic activity. It had to be the Sirius returning from Norfolk before making her trip to China.

He ran all the way back to find Captain Phillip to report it, and when the Governor said he would take his boat out to meet the ship, Tench begged to be allowed to accompany him, for at least it was a diversion from the normal routine and thinking about Mary.

They were about half-way to the Heads when they saw the longboat from the Supply being rowed towards them. Tench recognized Captain Ball making frantic gestures with his hands and his heart sank.

‘Sir,’ he said, turning to Captain Phillip, ‘prepare yourself for bad news!’

Will came haring along the beach to where Mary was washing some clothes. She looked up from her task anxiously at the sound of his pounding feet. ‘What is it?’ she yelled, hoping against hope it was news of a ship carrying provisions.

‘The Sirius has been shipwrecked,’ he shouted back.

It was some time before Will regained enough breath to explain what he’d heard down at the harbour. The Sirius had just lowered its boats loaded with provisions in Sydney Bay at Norfolk Island, when the ship drifted on to sunken rocks. Captain Hunter tried to avert a disaster by dropping the anchor, but he was too late. Before the anchor chain had tightened, she struck the coral reef that ran parallel to the shore. As the sea tore into the holds, the crew cut away the masts to lighten the ship, so she might float free, but by then there was little hope of this.

‘They sent out lines to get the men ashore,’ Will gasped out. ‘Worked till it was too dark to see any more, so I heard. Next morning they got the rest off.’

Mary was deeply shocked. Losing the Sirius was a mortal wound to the colony. How would they get provisions from China now?

‘Is everyone safe?’ she asked. Some of the women and children who had been sent there were people she’d come to care for.

Will nodded. ‘Thank God for that small mercy.’ His face broke into a smile then. ‘Some of the convicts were sent out to the ship to get the remaining animals off. They found some grog, so they lit fires and settled down for a party.’

‘Oh, Will,’ Mary sighed. ‘That’s not funny!’

‘We have to laugh otherwise we’d go under,’ he retorted indignantly. ‘And there’s another funny story too. Lieutenant Clark got knocked off the raft by a convict falling in. The convict couldn’t swim so Clark rescued him and brought him safely to shore. Then Clark beat him with a stick for jeopardizing his safety.’

Mary giggled. That to her mind was typical of Lieutenant Ralph Clark, whom she had never liked. He was a mean-spirited hypocrite who had spent most of the first year here calling all the female prisoners whores, and boring Tench and the other officers to death with tales of his wonderful wife Betsy back home. But then he’d had the nerve to take a lag wife, after all he’d said about the convict women! He was even absurd enough to name the child borne of that union   Betsy, after his beloved wife. He’d been sent off to Norfolk Island to take control and as far as Mary was concerned, the harder he found it the better.

‘But what will happen to us now?’ she asked Will. ‘The Sirius was our only chance of getting more supplies.’

Will frowned. ‘Phillip has called a special meeting of all the officers for six o’clock.’

Mary knew from Tench that Phillip wasn’t in the habit of confiding in anyone. He maintained his aloofness at all costs, so he must be extremely worried to call his men in.

‘There’s going to be even harder times ahead, that’s for sure,’ Mary sighed dejectedly. ‘But let’s try and look on the bright side, Will. If a ship doesn’t come from England soon, Phillip will be even more dependent on your fishing. It’s time you insisted on a portion of the catch for yourself again. Your skill will be the only thing which will keep everyone alive here.’

Captain Phillip was indeed a very worried man as he stood before his assembled officers at six o’clock. For so long he had lived in hope of a ship coming from England to solve the colony’s problems, but now he had to face the reality that he had to take other drastic measures or be a witness to wholesale death through starvation.

‘A further cut in rations will be necessary,’ he began, his voice trembling slightly because he knew that a daily ration of two and a half pounds of flour, two pounds of very old pork, a pint of dried peas and a pound of inedible rice, divided between seven people, just wasn’t enough to sustain life. ‘We must supplement this with more fish and meat if we aren’t to perish. My plan is to requisition all private boats for fishing and to form hunting parties.’

The officers looked at one another in consternation, knowing they were expected to volunteer their services. With the exception of Tench, they all considered supervising such expeditions unpleasant, for they did not like working with the convicts.

‘Are you suggesting, sir, that some of the convicts are to be given arms?’ one of the more senior officers asked, a look of horror on his florid face.

‘Yes,’ Phillip said wearily. ‘Some of them are good marksmen. I believe if we show trust in them, they will respond with a real effort for the common good.’

He moved on to say he had no choice but to send the Supply off to Batavia, in the Dutch East Indies. Captain Ball would charter another ship there to bring back supplies. Philip King, the previous Governor of Norfolk Island, would also leave on the ship to take despatches and Captain Phillip’s account of the state of the colony back to England.

The officers were even more concerned at this for the Supply was a little ship of only 170 tons, and for her to sail alone in unknown waters would be dangerous. Furthermore, if she was lost at sea they would have no vessel left here to take supplies to the settlement in Norfolk Island.

A murmur of dissent went round, but Phillip silenced it with a stern look.

‘We have no choice,’ he said bluntly. ‘We have no supplies to take to Norfolk Island anyway, and to leave a ship in the harbour waiting for help from England which might never come would be catastrophic. I ask you all to give me your support.’

Fear reigned over the colony after the Supply sailed out of the harbour in April. The officers feared for the little ship’s safety, and became aggressive. The troops dreaded an attack from the natives now firepower was so low. And the convicts were terrified of everything.

Before the Supply left a rumour circulated that the officers and troops were going to sail off in her, leaving the convicts to fend for themselves. They all knew they wouldn’t last long alone.

Despite the best marksmen being sent out hunting, all they shot was three very small kangaroos. With all the extra boats and men, and the absolute necessity of catching more fish, the catches improved for a while, but then they began to dwindle again. The officers took back their small boats, and in sheer desperation Captain Phillip allowed Will to use his own cutter.

Mary was never one to allow an opportunity to go by without attempting to make use of it.

‘This could be our big chance,’ she urged Will one night as they lay in bed. ‘With the use of that boat we could make our escape.’

‘Don’t be foolish,’ Will said wearily. He was so weak with hunger and tired from the strain of trying to bring enough food back for everyone that he wasn’t inclined to listen to his wife’s wild ideas.

‘I don’t mean now,’ she said, sitting up beside him and leaning over to kiss him. ‘We can’t do it without instruments, charts or a store of food. But what you can do is win the Governor’s confidence. Take the boat out further and further each time, but always come back. He’s trusting you now, think how much more trust he’ll have in you if you seem to be playing the game his way!’

‘I can’t see the point,’ Will said irritably. ‘Even if I did get him to trust me well enough so I wasn’t watched, I wouldn’t even know which was the best direction to go in to find a port.’

‘Tench was telling me about the Dutch East Indies the other day. There’s a busy port called Kupang,’ Mary said. ‘He said it was over the sea at the top end of this place.’

Will made a sort of guffaw. ‘Over the sea at the top end of this place!’ he scoffed. ‘What kind of directions are those? Does he know how many leagues it is? Has anyone sailed to it afore? Don’t talk daft, girl!’

Mary slumped back down, angry that he was mocking her. ‘I don’t know yet, but I’ll find out,’ she said with grim determination. ‘We have to escape, Will. If we don’t, Emmanuel and Charlotte will die.’

‘No, Mary,’ he said, turning his back on her dismissively. ‘They won’t, food will come, you’ll see.’

‘Maybe it will,’ she said, but she ran one finger down the deep scars from the flogging on his back. ‘Perhaps the children will even be lucky enough to survive all the outbreaks of fever, to avoid being bitten by a snake, and they won’t be corrupted by the other convicts. But let’s hope neither of us lives long enough to see Emmanuel tied to the triangle to be flogged.’

She felt Will stiffen under her fingers. She knew he still had nightmares about the flogging.

‘I’d kill anyone who tried to do that to him,’ he said.

‘You’ll be too weak by then,’ she said gently. ‘Old before your time with the struggle to survive. So will I be. That’s why we have to go soon, while we’re still capable of protecting the children.’

He sighed deeply. ‘I’ll think about it,’ he said.

‘And while you’re thinking about it, do what I said and win the Governor’s trust,’ Mary said. ‘Once we have that, we’re half-way there.’

Mary lay awake long after Will had fallen asleep. She watched and listened constantly, whereas Will went around with his eyes and ears closed. He might think there were adequate provisions for many months yet in the stores, but she knew better. When the officers dined with the Governor now, they had to take their own bread, and the fare at Government House was little better than her own. One evening they’d dined on dog!

Just a few days ago an elderly convict had died while getting his rations in the store, and when Surgeon White examined his body he found his stomach to be completely empty. The only reason Mary still had some fight left in her, and milk in her breasts for Emmanuel, was because of fish Will brought home from the day’s catch, and the grubs and berries the natives had introduced her to.

Bennelong had finally made his escape from the settlement, once the food and rum he had become used to grew short. Gardens, even the Governor’s own, had been constantly plundered for vegetables, despite the severe flogging that resulted if the culprit was caught. It wasn’t only convicts that did it, a seaman from the Supply was caught, and one of the Marines. Will had been compelled to dig a hole under their hut to keep their own meagre rations safe. He’d made it like the ones smugglers used back in Cornwall, lined with wood, and a false floor laid down on it.

Yet Mary thrived and still managed to feed her family because she refused to give way to utter despair as some were doing. As she told Will, it was just a case of hanging on, being helpful and pleasant to the officers so that when ships did arrive, as they surely must, she and Will would be in positions of trust. That way they could make opportunities to get the things they needed.

The days crept on, the misery of hunger growing more acute with each one. The weather turned very cold too, the wind eerily rustling the paper-dry leaves of the gums, and all public work ground to a halt because there was no one fit enough to do it any longer.

The convicts merely shuffled around now, every gaunt face illustrating the nature of real starvation. At night Mary often heard small children wailing pitifully from hunger. It was the worst sound she’d ever heard.

Will had appeared to heed Mary’s advice, for he made himself increasingly popular with the officers and troops by his diligence in fishing. For this he was rewarded with a share of the catch, and being allowed to pick his own helpers. James Martin, Jamie Cox and Sam Bird, his most trusted friends, often went with him, and although there were usually a couple of Marines along too, this wasn’t always the case. Will fished the waters beyond the Heads frequently, sometimes going several miles out to sea. He also struck up friendships with some of the natives as they fished from their canoes. Often it was they who directed him to large shoals.

Will sometimes saw Bennelong as he sailed down the harbour. He would paddle out in his canoe and occasionally climb aboard the cutter for a chat. Mary was sure that if she and Will managed to get their hands on some spirits, he could easily be bribed into helping them escape.

Just when it looked as if all hope of rescue was gone, in the afternoon of 3 June the flag was struck on South Head. As the cry went up that a ship was coming, pandemonium broke out. Men downed tools and cheered, women came hobbling out of their huts and hugged one another.

Watkin Tench, along with Surgeon White and Captain Phillip, took his boat and went off down the harbour. All three of them were as excited and emotional as the rest of the settlement, despite the discomfort of heavy rain and a stiff wind. As they drew closer to the Heads and saw the big ship coming in flying English colours, Phillip transferred on to a fishing boat to go back, leaving Tench and White to go and collect welcome news from home.

‘Look at that magical word on her stern,’ White said, pointing to the painted sign that read ‘London’. ‘I had begun to doubt I would ever see such a thing again.’

The ship was the Lady Juliana, and because of the strong winds she was forced to anchor in Spring Cove just inside North Head, but Tench and White went alongside and called out a welcome to the ship’s officers.

‘You can’t know how welcome you are,’ Tench called out. ‘We feared we’d never get the provisions we need so desperately. Can you tell us what you are carrying so we can take the good news back to the settlement?’

‘Two hundred and twenty-five women felons, whores every one of them,’ came the shouted reply from one of the officers.

Tench laughed, he thought it was a joke. But his laughter stopped abruptly when a group of tow-haired women suddenly appeared on deck, shouting obscenities.

‘You have provisions too?’ White yelled, aware that Tench was too stunned to resume any further questions. ‘And the medicine we need?’

‘Seventy-five barrels of flour,’ the ship’s officer called back. ‘That’s all. We set sail with the Guardian, she carried the stores, but she got holed by an iceberg.’

By nightfall all the convicts were in despair.

Captain Phillip had returned to the harbour with a beam on his face, confirming to them that it was exactly as the fishermen had reported, a big English ship, anchored at Spring Cove.

The convicts waited, expecting Lieutenant Tench and Surgeon White to arrive back an hour or two later looking happier still. Many of their number hastily ate the last of their rations, in the belief that by the following day they would be given more than they usually ate in a week.

But Tench and White came back grim-faced and silent, going straight up to Government House without a word to anyone. When one of the men who had been on the cutter reported that there were over 200 women on the new ship and no provisions, they were not believed. Some laughed, assuming it had to be a joke. Yet as they watched other officers speeding up to Government House, and no sounds of revelry wafting out, they slowly realized that it had to be true.

The male convicts were far too weak with hunger to be excited by a huge number of new women descending on them. Their reaction was only fear that their rations would be cut even more drastically. But to most of the women it was a calamity. Bad though it was to be forced to share rations with strangers, the prospect of new women stealing their men away was even worse.

A relationship with someone, whether you were legally married or not, eased the misery of life in the colony. In most cases the partnerships were a compromise, especially for the women. Back home few of them would have chosen the mate they had here. But choice was limited, plain girls were grateful for being wanted, the prettier girls felt safer with a protector, and where a baby was a result of the arrangement, it gave some purpose to their life.

Mary was more nervous than most when she heard the news of the Juliana and its cargo of women. She knew it wasn’t her beauty or her cleverness that had kept Will with her for two years. He had stayed with her purely because there was a shortage of women, and by the time he’d got to know the prettier ones better, he found most had serious flaws in their characters.

Death, and men being moved to Norfolk Island, had decimated their numbers. There weren’t more than seventy men left here now, and a great many of those were physical wrecks. Among 200 new women who had been cooped up on a ship for months, there were almost certainly going to be dozens who would set their sights on Will.