Remember Me(9)

By: Lesley Pearse
Chapter nine

Every single woman in the settlement turned out to see the women from the Juliana being rowed ashore. Apart from the weather, it was almost like a re-enactment of their first day here, for they could hear the same kind of excited laughter and the ribald remarks they’d made themselves. But whereas they had arrived in early February, which in this upside-down country meant summer with blazing sunshine, so hot that many of them ran into the sea to cool down, the new arrivals were experiencing winter. The sky was grey, a keen wind was blowing, making the sea choppy, and it was very cold.

There should have been sisterly concern for the new women. After all, they had been through a long, gruelling voyage, and now they were about to enter hell. Yet just the way they looked, even from a distance, was enough to make the old-timers forget any kindly thoughts and band together in antipathy and resentment. The new arrivals’ clothes were vivid colours, many wore hats trimmed with flowers and feathers, they were plump and healthy, and they looked for all the world like a troupe of actresses, not convicts.

Mary clutched Emmanuel closer to her breast in fear. Her first exposure to the convicts from the other transport ships in the fleet was printed indelibly on her mind. They had all seemed so much tougher than her, conniving and ruthless too. Time and the hardships here had made all the survivors equal now, but she was afraid these new women would alter everything.

‘Lots of ladies,’ Charlotte said, looking up at her mother with undisguised glee. ‘Pretty ladies.’

At her child’s innocent words Mary felt a pang of shame. They were, after all, just women like herself. All of them had known chains and the horrors of prison and had been wrenched from their families and friends. She didn’t want Charlotte to grow up in a climate of bitterness and hate. She decided she must put aside her fear and jealousy and welcome the newcomers.

‘I thought we might have had a few fights on our hands,’ Surgeon White said to Tench over dinner at White’s house the following evening. ‘But thanks to the actions of Mary Bryant the new women appear to be settling in well.’

The two men had become friends on the Charlotte, despite a twenty-year age gap. Their interests and family backgrounds were similar, and though the surgeon was more concerned with the general health of the colony, and Tench with the challenge of making it a success, they were both intensely fascinated by this new, as yet unexplored land. They had gone on several exploratory trips into the bush together, and shared the same curiosity about its natives. Both of them also had compassion for the convicts, something few of the other officers felt.

By candlelight, White’s dining room would pass for being much like any country doctor’s back home in England, with its whitewashed walls, snowy table-cloth, plain, serviceable china, laden bookshelves and a couple of treasured landscapes on the walls. By daylight, however, the crudeness of the building showed. The walls were wattle and daub, and in heavy rain holes often appeared. The floor beneath a rug was uneven boards. But whatever its shortcomings, it was a haven of civilization for White and his dinner guests.

While Charles White often regretted his decision to come out here with the fleet, it was mainly because of the lack of medical equipment and medicine rather than the absence of comforts. A widower for over ten years, he had grown used to the bachelor life, and he had two convict women, Anne and Maria, who cooked and kept house for him. He also had little Nunburry, the native boy he’d adopted, to take care of, and some very good friends. Tonight his mood was mellow. He had managed to acquire a bottle of brandy, and he and Tench had dined on a first-class sea bass, with some carrots and potatoes from White’s own garden. It was truly miraculous that the vegetables hadn’t been stolen, but perhaps by showing Anne and Maria a little kindness, and giving them some extra food, he had gained their loyalty.

‘Mary’s a good woman,’ Tench agreed. ‘I daresay she remembered how hard it was for her to adjust when she first arrived here. If only all the women had her practical nature and generosity of spirit!’

He had been surprised and touched to see Mary helping with the allocation of huts for the new arrivals. She seemed to be making a real effort to make the new women feel welcome. He wished her attitude was a general one; already there had been reports of clothing and other personal possessions being stolen.

‘There’s a fair few trouble-makers among the new ones,’ White sighed, remembering the two women he’d separated for fighting and the profanities they’d screamed at him. ‘According to the reports, they carried on their whoring with the sailors all the way here. A great number of them are with child. But they are healthy at least, save for the pox of course.’

Tench smiled. White was always ranting about the scourge of venereal diseases. They were rife here of course, but Tench couldn’t believe as White did that the whole future of this new land was at risk because of it.

‘At least the Juliana brought news,’ Tench said cheerfully. ‘I am amazed to hear of the revolution in France. When I was in Paris I confess to being appalled by the excesses of the aristocracy. And good news too that King George has recovered from his madness. What do you know of this sickness he suffered?’

‘Very little. I’m just an old saw-bones,’ White shrugged. ‘But I am glad Farmer George is well again. As glad as I was to find the Juliana has enough rations for two years for her convicts.’

Tench smiled. That news had been the very best, a huge relief for everyone. It was just a shame they hadn’t been told immediately, then there would have been less hostility towards the new arrivals. Now everyone was hoping that the Justinian from Falmouth, which was apparently fully loaded with stores and equipment, would arrive before the next huge influx of convicts.

But personally Tench was most grateful for the letters from home that were brought out by the ship. He felt he had stood up remarkably well to all the discomforts and deprivations of the settlement, but the sense of isolation from his friends and family had almost broken him at times. Indeed, if he was truthful, there had been times in the past two years when he feared he would never live to see them again.

‘Let’s drink a toast to the light at the end of a very dark tunnel,’ he suggested.

White filled their glasses. ‘Light to banish the darkness,’ he said, and chuckled. ‘Though with another three transports, and a thousand convicts on their way, we’ll need a great deal of light to banish that darkness.’

Mary and Will stood together at the harbour, quaking as they looked out across the bay to the Neptune and the Scarborough. They could see the longboats being lowered to bring the convicts ashore. But the terrible stench coming from the ships was enough for them to know that what they were about to see was going to be utterly appalling.

It had been bad enough on the previous day, helping the sick from the Surprise to the hospital. Many of those convicts were so frail that they were unable to walk, having lain in their own vomit and excreta for most of the voyage. But today was going to be even worse.

The Justinian had arrived on 20 June, bringing joy to everyone in the settlement as she carried ample provisions and much-needed equipment, along with animals. She had left England some time after the Surprise, Neptune and Scarborough, the three transport ships carrying another 1,000 convicts. But she had overtaken them and made the voyage in only five months. Full rations were issued once again, and working hours put back to normal. The Justinian left again as soon as her cargo was unloaded, to take provisions to Norfolk Island.

On the 23rd the flag was struck again, but it was two days before the ship which had been signalled sailed into the bay. This was the Surprise, carrying 218 male convicts and a detachment of the newly formed New South Wales Corps.

It was shocking to hear that there had been forty-two deaths during the voyage, and another hundred were sick. And when the Reverend Johnson went aboard, he reported back that the convicts were lying almost naked in the holds, too sick to move or help themselves.

Mary and Will, along with many other convicts, had come forward willingly to help, but the sights and smells were so awful that many of the volunteers turned tail and ran. Few of the women helpers could stop themselves from crying openly. It was patently obvious that these new arrivals had been half starved and kept below decks for almost the entire voyage. Many of them would never recover.

They had barely got those men washed, fed and under blankets, before the other two ships arrived. The Reverend Johnson went aboard the Scarborough, but was advised by the captain not to go below decks. The terrible stench coming from the holds was enough to deter him, and he didn’t even attempt to board the Neptune.

Tents had hurriedly been erected in front of the hospital, and there was food, water, clothes and medicine in readiness. The night before, as Mary tried to sleep, the smell from the ships at anchor made her stomach heave. It was a hundred times worse than anything she’d experienced on the Dunkirk. Although her heart went out to the poor souls in their suffering, she had felt she couldn’t possibly help again today.

But by dawn, the anger she felt at men putting profit before human life made her strong again. According to conversations she’d overheard between officers, transportation had been put out to private tenders. As the government offered £17 7s 6d a head for rations, the less the convicts were given to eat, the more food the ships’ owners could sell off once they arrived here. If convicts died en route, this made it even more lucrative.

Mary heard one officer comparing the transport owners unfavourably with the slave traders. As he pointed out, at least the traders were motivated to keep the slaves fit and healthy, for the better the condition they were in, the more they could be sold for. There was no such incentive even to keep convicts alive.

‘They say Captain Trail of the Neptune kept them all chained together,’ Will said in a subdued, shocked voice. ‘When one of the number died, the prisoners kept quiet about it to get the man’s rations. Imagine being so desperate for extra food that you’d lie next to a decomposing body!’

Mary didn’t answer him, for she knew from personal experience that she would probably do absolutely anything, however repulsive, to keep herself alive. Now she had two children to care for, her survival instinct was even stronger.

The loading of the longboats began. They watched the first few people climb slowly and hesitantly down the rope ladder, and even from the shore they could see how difficult it was for them. But they were the lucky ones; before long the sailors and troops were practically hurling people into the boats, as if they were sacks of goods, because they weren’t capable of walking, let alone climbing.

As the boat rowed in closer, a gasp went up, for the people were like skeletons. There was no eager expectancy on their faces, and they lolled as if close to death – indeed, one was dead on arrival. Two more were to take their last breath as they lay where they’d been placed on the wharf.

‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing,’ Will said, the horror in his eyes matching his cracking voice. ‘God save us from men that would let this happen.’

‘They aren’t men,’ Mary said in a loud, clear voice, feeling she could strangle those responsible with her own bare hands. ‘They’re beasts.’

Her anger fuelled her, stopped her considering the risk of infection to herself or even caring about the smell any more. The convicts were almost naked, their bodies covered with sores, wriggling maggots and faeces. She bent over one man to try to get him to drink some water, and he tried to cover his exposed penis because she was a woman.

‘I’ve seen plenty of those before,’ she said gently, touched that even in such a terrible state and close to death, he could still concern himself with propriety. ‘You’re safe now, there’s food and drink, water to wash, but you’ve got to fight to get better. Don’t you dare give up on me!’

‘Your name?’ he asked, his cracked lips splitting open with the effort to speak.

‘Mary,’ she said, wiping his face with a wet rag, ‘Mary Bryant. And yours?’

‘Sam Broome,’ he whispered hoarsely. ‘God bless you, Mary.’

The sights grew worse as the day progressed, men with dysentery so bad that the fluids ran out of their bodies where they lay. Surgeon White said they were all suffering from scurvy too and ordered men to go out into the bush and pick quantities of the ‘acid berries’ he’d found had anti-scorbutic properties.

It seemed 267 people had perished before even reaching Port Jackson, and many others had died since. In fact the bodies of those who died after coming through the Heads were thrown overboard. Of the survivors, 486 were desperately sick, and most of them were not expected to recover. Mary heard as she helped one woman with a tiny infant that she hadn’t even had her shackles removed for the child’s birth. She was to be told that again several more times during the day.

Later that evening in the drawing room of Government House, Captain Phillip sat with Captain William Hill of the Juliana, and raged about the obscenity he’d seen that day.

‘I have spoken to the captains of the Neptune and the Scarborough,’ William Hill said. ‘In my opinion they should be hanged.’

William Hill was considered a hard man, but he had made sure the women convicts on his ship were well cared for. Some of their number had been old and feeble when they embarked, and he’d had a handful of deaths, but the rest of the women were probably better fed than they’d ever been in their whole lives. In Hill’s opinion it would have been far more humane for the courts back in England to have sent all these people to the gallows than to allow blackguards like Captain Trail of the Neptune to profit by their slow and painful deaths.

‘I understand there was a question of the prisoners on the Scarborough plotting to take over the ship,’ Phillip said, his small face purple with anger. ‘That would necessitate putting the ring-leaders in chains. But the conditions on the Neptune beggar belief. The ship should never have been considered seaworthy, she took on water constantly. The prisoners were actually up to their waists in water for part of the voyage. No fumigation of their quarters, none of them brought up on deck for exercise and fresh air.’

‘I shall voice all this when I return to England,’ William Hill said forcefully, banging his fist on the table. ‘In my opinion these men are murderers, far worse species than you have in this colony.’

Arthur Phillip went over to the window. Below, the town was quiet, fires burning like little beacons in the darkness. He thought of all those lying in the hospital and the tents in front of it, and wondered how many more would be dead by dawn.

He was close to complete exhaustion. He had taken the position as Captain of the Fleet and then as Governor General because he believed he could make this penal colony a success. He had hoped that he could convert his criminal charges into men and women who would grasp the opportunities open to them and make something of themselves.

Sadly, he seemed to have failed. He knew now that the offer of free land at the end of their sentences would only be taken up by a few. Most were too lazy and incompetent to farm. The survivors of the Second Fleet would be prejudiced against the colony from the outset, and who could really blame them?

He was staring into the abyss again. Today he’d heard a Third Fleet was on its way with another 1,000 convicts. Many of his good officers would be returning home then. He’d done his very best, he’d tried to govern with humanity, but even a gardener couldn’t hope to grow something of lasting beauty without basic equipment, good seed and fertile conditions.

‘You seem troubled, Arthur,’ William said from behind him. ‘Today’s events are no reflection on you.’

Phillip turned to Hill and pulled himself up erect. ‘I think they are a reflection on all of us,’ he said wearily. ‘On those who stand by and watch the guilty go unpunished, just as much as the guilty themselves.’

‘You’re very quiet this evening, Mary,’ Will said. It was Christmas Day, and he supposed she was brooding on Cornwall, and imagining her family sitting around the fire with a roast goose in their bellies. Lately he’d often heard her telling Charlotte about Fowey and her relatives there. As time went on she seemed to think about them more, rather than less.

‘It’s too hot to talk,’ she said, but smiled at him and affectionately reached out from her stool to pat his thigh. ‘It’s a wonder the little ’uns can sleep.’

It had been fearfully hot for weeks now, the animals and poultry had taken to lying down in any shade or water they could find. Will considered himself lucky to be off fishing every day, at least out in the bay there was always a breeze.

‘I thought maybe you were thinking of home,’ he said.

‘About how to get home,’ she corrected him, and grinned. ‘I think I know how to get the stuff we need.’

Will rolled his eyes with impatience. She never let up about escape. Even when she didn’t talk about it, he knew she was thinking about it. He’d never known a woman as dogged as Mary.

Will was happy enough in the colony, though he would never admit that to anyone, least of all Mary. While they were all starving, he would gladly have gone, but the colony had got back on its feet since the Second Fleet arrived.

The help he and Mary had given the sick convicts had been noted by the officers, and as the convicts got better, they too were grateful for the kindness they’d been shown. They had nothing to reward him with except their admiration and loyalty of course, but that was enough for Will. It made him feel important.

He had the freedom to come and go as he liked within the settlement. He did a job he loved. He could treat Captain Phillip’s cutter as his own. He could get practically anything he wanted in exchange for fish. He even had a fair stash of money too, for the crews of the Second Fleet were all sick of salted pork and were glad to pay him for fish. But above all he enjoyed his status here: men looked up to him, women lusted after him. He had it all.

‘So where are you going to get it?’ he said wearily.

‘Captain Smith,’ she said.

Will was so surprised he nearly fell off his stool. Captain Detmer Smith, a Dutchman, had only been here a few days. He was the owner of a snow, the Waaksamheyd, that Captain Ball of the Supply had chartered while in Batavia. Smith had sailed in on 17 December with provisions for the colony, after an appalling voyage in which sixteen of his Malay crew had died of fever.

There was some sort of wangle with regard to the provisions going on between Captain Phillip and Smith, and it appeared that none of the officers in the colony liked the Dutchman. Will did, however. Smith had none of the stuffiness of the English captains, he was warm, open and friendly.

‘Are you mad?’ Will asked Mary.

‘No, just devious,’ Mary replied. ‘Detmer likes you and me. And I shall make sure he likes us even more before I talk him into parting with charts and a sextant.’

‘He’ll never do that,’ Will scoffed.

‘Why not?’ Mary retorted. ‘He’s being treated shabbily by all the officers, he’s lonely and far from home. He’s not English, so why should he mind helping a couple of English convicts escape?’

Will always slapped Mary’s ideas down as a matter of principle. Women weren’t supposed to be the clever ones. Yet deep down he knew her mind was sharper than his. She’d once asked him to teach her to read and write, and he said he couldn’t, not without books. She never asked him again, and somehow he knew that was because she’d seen through him. He didn’t want a wife who could read and write. It would diminish him.

But then Mary could see through most people. She watched and listened, she took in things Will would never notice. She might even be right about Detmer Smith.

Will made love to Mary that night, and took great care to please her, for he really wanted her to forget about escape. His sentence would be up in March, and though he often told other men he would be on the first ship home, that wasn’t what he wanted at all.

He only got nostalgic for Cornwall when he was drinking. He would remember the good parts, the soft climate, the moors and the woodland, the laughter in the tavern, the camaraderie among the fishermen.

But sober, he remembered it wasn’t quite like that. Without a fishing boat of your own, you were dependent on the man who had one, hauling nets all night in freezing conditions for a shilling or so. He’d been hungry there too, and no place looked pretty to a man with an empty belly.

At least it was warm here, even in the winter. He might have got cold and wet many times when the weather was bad, but it wasn’t the kind of cold that got right into your bones so it almost paralysed you.

It was said that men would be offered free land here when their time was up. Land was of no use to him, what he wanted was his own fishing business. If he could sell his catches to the store he’d soon be a rich man. Then he could build a fine house for Mary and the children. In time, Emmanuel would come into the business with him.

‘Was that good?’ Will whispered when he’d done. He was soaked with sweat, so hot that it was almost torture to hold Mary’s equally hot body in his arms.

‘Wonderful,’ she murmured against his chest. ‘But it’s too hot. Let’s run down to the water for a dip!’

She didn’t even wait for him to agree, but wriggled out of his arms, took his hand and pulled him out of bed. Then with a little giggle she ran out of the hut and down to the water.

Will smiled. One of the things he liked best about Mary was her spontaneity. She got an idea and she wanted to put it into action right away, not think about it first. Maybe that was what had got her into trouble in the first place, but he wouldn’t change that part of her.

She was passionate too, something he had never expected of her, for she looked so chaste and shy. She was always eager for love-making, responding quickly to just a kiss or a cuddle. Time after time she’d taken his mind right off hunger with her sensual touches, the way she wanted to please him.

The moon was bright, catching on her girlish, slender body as she dived into the sea as gracefully as a porpoise. Few other women here could swim, or men for that matter; they walked in up to their waists looking fearful, as if they expected the sea to swallow them up. Will found that daring quality about Mary as sexy as well-rounded breasts or silky skin.

She waved, beckoning him to join her, and Will ran eagerly down the beach. They swam together a little way, then Mary turned on her back and floated, her hair like strands of seaweed around her face.

‘We’ve never done it in the sea,’ she said, and giggled softly.

‘We might drown if we try this far out,’ Will retorted, but he reached out for her, treading water and holding her afloat as he sucked at her nipple.

‘First one back to the shallows gets to be on top,’ she said, flipping herself over and making off to the shore.

For once Will didn’t try to beat her, he liked her being on top, and watching her face as she came.

‘I don’t think my John Thomas is all that eager,’ he said as he swam over to where she sat in just a foot or two of water. He thought she had never looked so pretty as she did tonight, her wet curls glistening on her bare shoulders. He knelt and showed her his penis, which had shrunk in the cold water so it looked like an old man’s.

‘I have ways of reviving him,’ she said with a grin like a whorehouse madam’s. ‘Would you like me to show you, sir?’

Will loved it when she played the whore. It made him feel powerful and lusty. He assumed when she reached out for his penis that she was just going to stroke it, but to his shock and delight, she wriggled closer in the water and took it into her mouth.

Will had heard from other men of high-priced whores doing such a thing, but he’d never bedded a woman who would do it. As Mary’s warm mouth closed over him he gasped, for it was the sweetest sensation he’d ever known. He was erect immediately, and he was terrified she would stop, but she didn’t. Instead, she held on to one of his butt**ocks, cradling his balls with the other hand, and moving her lips and tongue up and down the length of him. He could barely keep his balance on his knees, and when he looked down and saw himself disappearing into her eager mouth, her naked breasts undulating against his thighs, he almost toppled over.

It was the best thing he’d ever known. All at once he was no longer in a penal colony, a man stripped of all decency and pride, but transported to a moonlit tropical island, where he was a rich gentleman. He imagined himself in a ruffled silk shirt and velvet knee-breeches with silver buckles, and Mary as an exotic beauty wearing nothing but a garland of flowers, his willing slave.

‘That’s so good,’ he moaned, catching hold of her head and bringing her even closer.

‘How good?’ she asked, breaking away from him for a moment and looking up at him with an impish grin.

‘The best in the world,’ he sighed. ‘Don’t stop now.’

‘I haven’t told you the price yet,’ she said.

‘Whatever it is I’ll pay it.’ Will’s voice was cracking with passion now.

‘Escape is the price,’ she murmured. ‘Are you willing to pay it?’

Will was willing to promise her anything. ‘Yes,’ he groaned. ‘Just do it some more.’

Mary smiled to herself as she continued. She had him now. Will might make himself out to be tougher and braver than he really was, but she’d found he always kept promises. She was very grateful to Sadie from the Lady Juliana for passing on her secret weapon to get men to obey her. The funny thing was, Mary had expected to find it repulsive but it wasn’t, in fact she liked doing it.