The belly of the ship was a foul thing. It ploughed a sour furrow through the waves. Though the wind bellied the canvas sails like bellows and swept the breeze over the deck, still the taint of unwashed humanity remained.
In these newly chartered waters there was no such thing as an English summer; the sun was given free rule to burn. It was the relentless traveller above board, and the unremitting passenger below. No one was above its rule. It shone down on the jewelled sea, glimmering cruelly on the water that it fashioned for a mirror.
Tied with a hemp rope by the wrists to the mast, the prisoner’s back was meshed with crosses that bled scarlet in the morning sun. Bright drops dotted the lash master’s cravat, long ago sullied by the depravity of his task.
Still, the convict didn’t sway, didn’t flag as the scourger lashed his back. The man’s carriage remained erect, his head held high in the wind that fanned his face, and he stood clothed in a dignity that could not be denied, even though his shirt hung in tatters upon the wide frame of his shoulders.
Yet though his slow movements told his weariness to all, his step didn’t falter, nor did his shoulders slump. The fetters round his ankles heralded the humble, proclaiming the servitude that was his, yet told nothing of the belligerent pride in his stature; said nothing for the burning defiance in his eyes.
And that gaze, as he met her look, cared not at all for her charity, or her thoughts of mercy, or the salt that sprung to her eyes. The blue intensity of his stare was as hard as the brilliance of the steely sea.
Emma bowed beneath the insult of his look. It was as if he blamed her for the punishment that had been meted out to him. Her guilt was unaccountable, but it remained. Emma fought the desire to turn away.
“Good morning miss,” the convict said. His greeting was a mockery, a rebuke, nothing more.
“No words of yours for the lady,” the soldier warned. “Keep your eyes averted.” But the prisoner didn’t heed, seemed not to care for the soldier’s opinion. His gaze remained fixed, unswerving.
“What?” he whispered. “No good morrow for the likes of me?” was his demand, his eyes chill; his contempt colder still. Emma stared back, words stuck somewhere in her throat, the smile she had mustered swept away on the breeze.
“Cat got your tongue?” His smile was without humor.
“It certainly didn’t take yours, sir,” Emma concluded, as much to herself as to the man who stood above her. If he felt the sting of her retort he didn’t show it, yet his words of open hostility burned like the sun upon her. If anything his smile became wider, but it was probably fair to say that it was only due to malice.
Dimly she heard the irritable threats of the soldier, heard the dull thud of the truncheon as it glanced off the convict’s back. And then, finally, she did what she thought she might, and fainted.
“Begging your pardon,” Emma whispered, as the Captain helped her to her feet. She stood unsteadily, her sea legs having forsaken her along with her dignity. He took her solicitously by the arm and led her in the direction of her cabin. Emma turned to glance self consciously behind her. The deck had cleared. The convict was nowhere in sight. Relief washed over her.
“No need to apologize, Miss Colchester,” he assured her. “It’s the heat. It gets worse than this though, that’s for sure. Still, you’ll get used to it soon enough. Have to, eh?”
“Yes, indeed.” No one had thought to warn her about the weather.
“Still, that villain didn’t help matters any. There’s no room for insolence on this vessel. They’ve got to learn how to function in society Miss, and if they don’t get pulled up on small misdemeanors, then they won’t be of any purpose in the community of the settlement.” She supposed that in some ways he was correct.
“I never considered that,” she admitted, and wondered in passing whether the captain’s opinion was one common to the colony. She hoped that she never had to meet the prisoner again. The smile he had graced her with was as cold as charity, and given reluctantly at that. “Tell me Captain, what offence did the prisoner commit to receive a flogging?”
“Who can say? But they’re all the same. Don’t turn your back. That’s the best bet. Now,” the captain suggested, “allow me to have you brought some refreshment. That and a rest an hour or so before we enter the harbour will do you the world of good.”
“I would appreciate that. I am curious, Captain as to what should I expect when I arrive? Is Newcastle as black as it’s painted?” The captain stopped to consider, looking down and scratching his head as he smiled.
“No Miss, I can assure you it’s far darker.” A chuckle escaped his barrel chest, his shirt stretched tighter than the skin of a military drum. Emma smiled in return, but later on, she was to reflect on those words.
“I only hope this wind doesn’t get any worse, else it’ll have us dashed against the shoals. Macquarie’s pier will have the harbor as calm as bath water when the break-wall’s finished, but there’s many a good vessel that’s come aground in high wind. Still,” he gave her a confident wink, “I’ve been through in worse than this. I reckon we’ll get through no worries.” Emma had no choice other than to rest on his assurance, but a frown of consideration creased her forehead.
“I certainly hope so Captain,” Emma told him. She had every intention of marrying Josiah Quinn. Unforgiving weather and a threatening convict aside; that was her objective. She had come too far for failure.
“This old girl’s a tough one.” Smacking the boards above him with an affectionate hand, Emma thought she heard the brig sigh and stretch beneath the captain’s trust. He left her then to the oppressive privacy of her cabin and his pledge in the vessel.
The miniature around her neck had cracked. It threatened to peel, and this time she removed it before she washed over her sun-parched skin. She treasured the likeness of her intended, thrilled at the thought that soon they would meet.
Plymouth was long gone, and with it village life and all she had known. Her mother, widowed and with three other sisters as yet unspoken for, had not wanted Emma to leave, but the financial helpmeet that the officer Josiah Quinn would become when he and Emma entered into holy matrimony, would be a Godsend to the family nevertheless.
Emma was temperate almost always, and her decision to seal her consent in scented notepaper had not been an impetuous one, for their written courtship had lasted many months. That her uncle’s wife had not only condoned the match but had in fact brought forth the officer to her attention as a genuine long standing friend, vouched for his character within the colony, and Emma wrote the word yes in her most elegant script.
How different her Josiah would undoubtedly be in comparison to the convict she had spoken to above deck. Emma’s head swam again and when she thought of the man’s belligerance she groaned inwardly. At least she wouldn’t have to suffer him at any garden parties nor add his name to her dancing partners list. Yet it was individuals such as he that she had hoped to comfort with the Bible, convicts who tried to veil their shame with careless nonchalance. Would they all be such hard nuts to crack?
Yawning behind her hand, Emma sought slumber on the small cabin cot, listless with the heat in spite of her excitement. She was surprised that she slept so heavily. When she woke she was little refreshed.
Emma peered out at the sea from the small cabin window. Bracing herself as the vessel dipped and reeled, she realised that her lack of balance had nothing to do with the dizzy spell she had had up on deck, for the brig was being tossed like a cork.
An immense rocky island, that could have been no less than two hundred feet in height, dwarfed the boat that bobbed and pitched in its shadow on the waves. She stepped away from the threat, as though to distance herself from its bulk as it loomed precipitously dark ahead of her. Even as she watched, it was if the sun had been blotted from the sky. A wave of sickly unease rose within her and she swayed with its pull.
Emma heard the hammering behind her as if from a distance. When the door was swung wide to slam against the wall, she veered as if she had been struck a blow.
“Cap’n said you’d better get back up on deck Miss,” the cabin boy told her, as wide eyed as she was. “Thinks it might be harder to enter the harbor than he first thought.”
“And the convicts?” Emma wondered.
“They are to be unchained I believe, miss.”
“Can you swim?”
“No miss. Can’t say as I was ever taught.” His grim smile pulled a little tighter in his nut-brown face, and Emma felt his fear, saw it behind his candid eyes, and hoped for him.
Emma had been given instruction on the art of swimming, but she wondered, almost absentmindedly, if she would remember any of it to put into practice.
Moments later, she was clambering to the upper deck as the brig creaked and groaned beneath her, watching as if she viewed the spectacle from someone else’s eyes while the convicts were being freed from the fetters that bound them.
Huge chains were splashed by thunderous spume, snatched overboard by the cruel hands of the waves, to be dragged to the bowels of the seabed. She stared down into the churning depths, stupefied. Though the sea rose and foamed tumultuously and the wind fought to rip her hair from her crown, the sun shone on regardless, brilliant and fierce.
There was no point remaining with the ship. In what seemed like moments, the vessel leant at a riotous angle, pushed irrevocably toward the shoals, regardless of the desperate cries of those that grasped at the sinking brig. Some were not inclined to risk the jump, but clung tenaciously onto anything that might save them. They were the ones who couldn’t swim.
Just like the damned, she hung onto the ship for dear life, terror held in check by the thread of a prayer. She met the eyes of the convict who’d felt the sting of the lash only that morning. His gazed locked onto her before he turned away.
In the unguarded moments of her fear, Emma didn’t stop to think of social impropriety as she watched him strip to the waist, and distantly she registered the broad, muscled strength of arms and shoulders, marred only by the cruelty that crossed his back in livid stripes. He removed the blood-soiled shirt and threw it down on the deck with something like repugnance, and without another backward look, dived below.
She never had time to make the awful decision to jump overboard. It was made for her. As a cold wave came to claim her, she heard her own surprised intake of breath before her throat was filled with the sea and she was taken down into the wash below.
After what seemed an age, Emma surfaced, groping for air. Then, because there was no other alternative, she lashed out for the shore. Brine streamed from her nose and burned her throat as she coughed. Her arms flapped like wings with the incoming tide, yet she was nothing like any seabird.
Resolve soon gave way to desperation, for the waters bore no comparison to the mill pond where she had learnt to swim. The waves hit her time and again, and each breath left her choking with the salt water that threatened to fill her lungs. Indeed, she felt it rattle in her chest as her breathing laboured, and she heaved each breath as though she was a consumptive patient.
Stopping to garner strength, she gazed behind her at the fast sinking ship, saw men clawing at it like terrified children at their mothers’ skirts, desperate only to ward off the inevitable. Mortality made itself known with every dash of the waves against the vessel.
She never knew if her eyes streamed with the sea or the tears of her terror. Her body was rendered almost motionless in a rigour of dread, making ready, it would seem, for what would soon come. She felt her laboured breathing and thought, so this is how it feels when one is drowning. Still she watched the horror unfold as men and women drowned.
The power of the words of the twenty-third psalm seemed to hold her above and apart from what seemed an inevitable fate. She mouthed the phrases that had grown with her from a child, just as surely as she breathed. And were it her last lucid moment, she would fear no evil.
Ahead of her, powerful arms slicing through the waves was the convict who had made a bid for freedom. Just as she had done, he turned to look behind him. Then he saw her. For long moments he considered her, and then he began to swim back to where she was.
Emma considered the possibility of another death than drowning as she measured the felon’s intent. Then a wave washed over her and she gagged on the deluge before it took her below. She was powerless to fight it, too drained to resist.
She felt large hands haul her bodily to the surface, and as she was pulled up and out, Emma choked on a breath of salty air. She coughed and barked like a sea-lion, and was splashed in the face again.
“You’ll have to take off your skirts,” he told her curtly. Emma stared blankly. He had to repeat himself.
“I beg your pardon?” Another wave washed over her words.
“Do it or drown milady,” he warned her, “for if you remain in that garb, you’re sure to.”
“I can’t just remove my clothing in front of you,” she rasped. Even as she thought it, Emma knew that it was ludicrous. Anyone tossed in the broiling harbour should have other concerns than lack of propriety.
“You either choose life or a watery grave. Put your arms around my shoulders and I’ll divest you of your gown.”
“As a gentleman, you would understand that I…”
A wave slapped him full in the face. He shook off the blow and growled,
“In my situation, it doesn’t pay to act genteel.”
Emma’s look was glazed as she tried for understanding. He began to loosen her garments as another wave took her below. “Grab hold of me, else you’ll see us both dead.”
He struggled with her as much as with her clothing. In spite of herself, she found herself pushing him away even as she went under time and again.
“You may keep your clothing on madam, but you will drown in your good manners!” he cursed, and they floundered in the coffin they fashioned.
“My life might be counted by some as worthless, but it’s the only one I’ve got!” he barked. Emma stared hard at him for a moment then did as she was bid, holding on to him for support as they bobbed and choked, her gown billowing around her like wet canvas sails.
Between them they fumbled with the hooks and buttons. He left nothing save the thin decorum of her chemise and a pair of hook and eye boots.
“Now lie back against me,” he commanded, “and kick like fury else we’re lost.”
Emma did exactly that. Every wave that passed would wash over mouth and nose. She tried to hold her breath at each approach, only to inhale the inevitable spray, hacking the salt from her lungs, wheezing like the infirm until the next wave came to dump itself upon her. Her legs cramped excruciatingly as she sent up a silent prayer into the brilliant blue of the heavens.
And still he ferried her doggedly through the waves.
Behind her Emma saw the gray woollen gown. It sunk slowly as she watched, then disappeared out of sight. She closed her eyes tightly and waited for the inevitable. It never came.
They were thrown roughly together on the shore. Emma gasped as the shells grazed her thighs. She rolled off the convict to see him grimace. Emma spent the next minutes labouring to breathe, her lungs like soaked sea sponge. Salt burned her eyes as she intermittently coughed up sea water and gulped on fresh air.
The convict sat up, and turned to the side to hack up the same, and she saw that his back ran red afresh, raw from the lash and the debris of the shore.
“You’re bleeding.” Emma pointed out, breathless. She could feel the water wheeze in her lungs as she inhaled and coughed again, wiping her streaming eyes.
“Aye, but I’m alive.” He told her roughly, just as greedy for air as she was.
Emma glanced at him. She had expected that his design had been anything other than noble, but she had been wrong. She had made her mind up that he had only thought to execute she hardly knew what, but she had been still more wrong, for he had swum back to save her life when she had pomposly thought to save his soul.
“I must thank you,” Emma told him, “for your goodness in what you did.” He shook her thanks away with a jerls of his head. She touched his shoulder in the strength of her gratitude, sought to convince him how gracious he had been, but he flinched as though he had been hit. Emma realized she had acted uncircumspectly, without thought.
“I did what many another would have,” he told her, “so save your soft words and your delicate hands of ministration for him.” Emma flushed in shame. The convict pointed to the miniature around her neck, squinting at the features as he gained breath. “You’re only wasting your time on the damned.”
“No man is truly damned,” she told him. He snorted at this, getting up to drunkenly haul someone to the burning sand of the shore. The convict rolled the body over and she heard him curse.
Incongrutious as it was, Emma considered the pale gold sand, and measured its soft weight in her palm. She had never seen the like, so dazzling and fine and beautiful, and so warm in her cold and water-wizened hand.
Emma turned to the sound of running feet, cumbersome in the sand of the foreshore; soldiers. She glanced back at her rescuer, into the eyes of the man who had saved her life.
“What do they call you?” she asked.
“Nothing you’d like to hear repeated,” he answered softly, turning away to stare out to sea, waiting for others who wouldn’t make the shore alive, and the few who would.
“Your Christian name?” Emma encouraged, finding the bravery to smile. He gave none in response, ignoring her well-meant enquiry. Her smile faltered and fell. This man did not want her hand of friendship any more than he would accept her thanks. She swallowed on it, her spirits dampened but not daunted.
Anticipating the approaching soldiers’ intent, he turned, waiting until they reached him. They grabbed either arm and began to escort him away. Their hold was none too gentle, and he was hauled, as worthless cargo, over the sand.
He stood head and shoulders above both men, almost as broad as the two combined, and yet he let them lead him away like an animal, when he could have surely barrelled them down to the edge of the churning sea.
“I want to talk to you about that man!” She called out, chemise and petticoats whipping wetly around her legs as she stumbled after them and stopped.
“Never mind miss,” one called over his shoulder to her, “he’ll be taken care of.” Emma stood dumbly, hair plastered to her neck like seaweed. The convict looked back, meeting her gaze for just an instant.
“He saved my life!” She called out to them, but they didn’t stop. She remembered then that she was almost naked, and clutched at her body in an attempt to cover herself.
Emma watched them walk away over the dunes. She saw that he made no mention of the fact that he had conveyed her tirelessly through the wall of waves, asked for no reward for his efforts or special treatment.
The convict never again lifted his head.