Fate. Court her, curse her, bribe or bemoan her, she is a fickle wench deserving of a sound thrashing. I had tried all but the very last in the course of my life and little good it had done me.
Standing in the dock at the Old Bailey whilst a powdered gentleman wearing more rouge on his cheeks than any self respecting courtesan decided the course my life, I had been relieved of the burden of attempting to influence fate any longer. My destiny was now in the good judge’s gout ridden hands.
My accuser stood before the judge, a thin pinched looking woman well dosed with pock marks. She had no doubt picked out her best dress for her appearance, a high waisted, form fitting red cotton affair that looked rather lost on her bony frame. I smiled at her with the cheer of one who might not be able to smile very much longer but she did not return my greeting.
“My name is Anna Bell,” she said addressing the court with a deferential bow of her greasy head. “I am wife to a baker. I saw the prisoner take bread from a shelf in our shop and hide it in her shawl. I called out for her to stop, but she pretended not to hear me.”
I do not know if it was because she had so little to say, or if it was because I was wondering how much meat sopped with gravy the judge must have consumed to have such a bilious aspect, but the first witness seemed to be dispatched with rather quickly. The watchman, a bulky hulk of a creature with whiskers bristling out of every inch of his face then took the oath and related the tale as it had unfolded to his eyes.
“I was alerted by the cries of the baker’s wife,” he said stiffly, speaking as if reading from a sheet in his mind. “She pointed me after the prisoner, who was hurrying away from the shop. I called to the prisoner to stop. She took to her heels and attempted to hide herself in an alley.”
The judge grunted. I did not know if that was a positive sound or a negative one, but inquiring after its meaning seemed imprudent, so I remained silent as the watchman continued his tale.
“At first I was taken in by her subterfuge,” he said. “But in her haste to escape the alley after I had passed, she happened to knock into an old woman who let out a shriek, drawing my attention back to the prisoner. I once again gave chase, to find my path blocked by a passing molasses wagon. When the wagon had moved on, the prisoner seemed to have disappeared. It was only after great pains that I discovered she had secreted herself at the back of the wagon and was being driven away.”
The judge leaned forward, placing one hand over the other. “Am I to assume,” he said in a voice that seemed to roll through the entire court house, silencing even the door mice with its gravity, “that you eventually came to have the prisoner in your custody?”
“After spending the better part of the afternoon and traveling half way to Newington Butts, yes,” the watchman agreed.
“And when you apprehended the prisoner, she was in possession of the bread?”
“She was not in possession of the bread, but examination of her shawl revealed crumbs. Matched with the vigor of her escape, I concluded that the prisoner was guilty and bought her before the magistrate, who likewise agreed a case was to be answered.”
“You have not spoken much in your defense,” the judge addressed me and very flattered I was too, that he had taken the time to make mention of such matters.
“I have been much entertained by these fanciful tales,” said I, showing my appreciation with a small fluttering of applause that made the chain between my manacles swing and clang quite merrily.
“You deny the charge then?”
“Of course,” I said. “I deny it wholeheartedly and unabashedly. I deny it from the tip of my toes to the curl of my crown.”
“There is no mistaking the prisoner,” the watchman said. “She is of uncommon fair complexion and her hair is the color of fire on a wet log.”
“I applaud your poetic soul,” I said, nodding towards the watchman, for his comments, whilst damning, were entirely complimentary.
I was guilty of course and of a base crime to be sure – not at all the crime I had been planning to commit. If I’d had it my way there would have been a king’s ransom worth of jewels in my threadbare pockets when the watchman finally brained me with his billy club, but a little bread was enough to see me sent to answer to the honorable judge. I did not expect mercy, children had been hanged for less. The very existence of the poor was sometimes too much for the delicate sensibilities of the law to bear.
I had not always been poor. At one stage I’d had three nursemaids attending to my every whim. That was before father died and mother remarried a man with little more to recommend him than a pleasing profile and a penchant for games of chance. Our fortune squandered, I had set out to make my own. Suffice to say, those plans had gone somewhat awry.
“You are not taking these proceedings with the gravity they demand.” The judge cast an eye of reprimand in my direction and I did my best to look apologetic and cowed. “You, Miss Wilde, are clearly a criminal of the most hardened and reprehensible kind. I have no choice but to find you guilty and sentence you…”
“Pardon me, if it is not too much trouble,” I interjected. “Might now be the proper time to throw myself upon the mercy of the body of the court?”
“Mercy is god’s business. My business is justice,” the judge grunted, clearly thinking himself very clever indeed. He cleared this throat before making his pronouncement, providing opportunity for a general enjoyment of his phlegmatic judgment. “Jane Wilde, you are hereby sentenced to hang by the neck until dead.”
This news did not well please me. I felt a certain weakness and thought I might do myself the immense disservice of fainting, when he spoke again. “This sentence is commuted to transportation to the Australian colonies for a period of seven years.”
“Thank you, your honor,” I breathed. “You are as merciful as you are wise.”
There was a twitch upon his face. It could have been an expression of pleasure or a small expulsion of intestinal gas. I did not speculate on it too deeply as I was lead from the dock.
From one dock to another. From confinement to bracing sea air. A hundred or so women stood about waiting to be ushered aboard a vessel that would transport us far from our motherland to a colony being settled by the rough and the brave.
Some were old maids, others mere waifs, children too young to understand what was happening. There was a queer elation in the air. What awaited us in the colonies nobody knew for certain. There were tales of great insects and cannibal natives, but also of free lands waiting for those who had served their sentences. Hope was a rare thing in London, but I saw it in more than one of the faces of the women waiting to board the Valiant under the command of Captain Morrow.
My first impression of Captain Morrow was of a large hat wandering to and fro aboard the ship. I was later to learn that his hat proceeded him in all things. Certainly it did in those moments of first impression. As he came into view of the crowd there was a palpable response, a mass exhalation of admiration.
Captain Morrow was a tall, well built man with military bearing. There were many titters of excitement and lewd comments as he came towards the gangway and was revealed in his full finery, a blue coat with gold lapels and buttons and similarly aureate lace trim. His breeches were whiter than white and though I could not make out the state of his shoes at a distance, I was sure that the leather would be polished to reflective perfection, the golden buckles shined to a dazzling hue.
It was a common enough thing for women to find husbands on the voyage to the Australian colonies, certainly such aspirations had been remarked on at length in the weeks and days leading to our embarkation. Those with such fledgling hopes felt them flutter with the promise of full flight as they gazed upon the captain and his crew, many of whom had been blessed with appealing aspects.
The good captain stood near the railing of his ship, his legs spread in a powerful stance, his hands clasped behind his back. From that comfortable distance he ran a dour eye over those of us who were about to become his cargo.
“I’d hoist his mainsail, if yer know what I mean,” Lizzy Jones leered. Lizzy had been sent down for thieving a shawl and a pair of britches. She had fine tastes for a common woman and a hearty aspect. Her ruddy red cheeks and ample bosom were the envy of many and more than once earned her favors from gaolers. Whilst most wilted and withered in close confines, Lizzy flourished, she had the survivalists disposition. I liked Lizzy a great deal. Her spirits were always high and though she could be coarse, she was the salt of God’s green earth.
“I cannot begin to imagine what you mean,” I replied, feigning propriety.
“You’ll ‘ave to get rid of yer verginity sometime,” Lizzy nudged me. We’d had many discussions on the subject of my ‘verginity’, which she regarded as a barrier holding me back from a whole world of opportunity. “Yer not a lady anymore. Yer a convict.”
“So kind of you to remind me.” I was nervous, I admit it. I had no intention of sailing off to the colonies, whilst Lizzy was making her plans of seduction, I was making plans for escape. To my joy we were not shackled on the dock. The ship would serve well enough as a sailing prison and until that time well armed officers with revolvers capable of sending shot right through a man were ranged about the place dissuading any thoughts of flight.
The ship’s mate began reading off our names and one by one we boarded the Valiant, tramping along the gangway that swayed and lifted with the motion of the ship in dock. My own name came towards the end of the proceedings, when most of the women had been ushered onto the ship and subsequently disappeared below. I gave silent thanks for their docility which was lulling those who watched us into a sense of ill considered security.
“Jane Wilde!” My name left the first mate’s sea chapped lips. I lowered my head and moved forward as the others had done, doing my best to seem of little concern or note. As I gained the deck of the Valiant, I could not help but glimpse to my left, where the master of the ship stood in all his glory.
I had not felt any of the glee evinced by Lizzy and her peers at the first distant sighting of the captain, but when his eyes met mine, a bolt of some divine origin struck through my midsection. He was possessed of eyes the color of a sea sky, not quite blue, but not quite gray, a stormy blending of the two shades. They were sombre, fringed with dark lashes that a lady would have been proud of. I held his gaze a moment longer than was quite proper. He lifted a brow at me, a quick quirk that questioned my intent. I felt in that moment that he had divined my plan, seeing it perhaps in my eyes. The thought spurred me to panic. I took two more steps forward, past the barrier of his gaze and, reaching for the buttons at my throat, ripped my overdress clear from my body, leaving myself only in my linen undergarments. There was a shout of surprise from the guards who seemed to be immobilized by the sight of my maidenly frame in a state of relative undress.
There was no time to be concerned with modesty as I dashed toward the far railing, clambered atop it and dived, feeling fingers brush at my ankles as I flew into the air, soaring for but a moment. Already joy was taking my heart for I had found a kind of freedom in the fall, which was longer than I had anticipated, long enough that I had time to tumble and hit the water feet first as my body sank into the harbor’s embrace.
Of course I wasted no time in striking out, though not for land. To swim to land would be to put myself back into the hands of my captors. I had determined it best if I were to make for open water and perhaps find the mouth of the Thames. I could hear little over the sounds of my own gasps for breath and the sloshing of water against my ears, but in the moments of clarity there were great shouts and much commotion, followed by loud reports as a few eager officers discharged their weapons at me. A shot broke the water not far from me, frightening me terribly.
I had become hunted like a fox, but unlike the fox I could not go to ground for long. Diving below the surface of the water hid me temporarily, but I was forced to resurface far too quickly as my lungs burned for air.
“Ho there! Stop wench!” A rough voice called out to me. I was by that time quite far from the ship and shore and could not discern where such a voice was issuing. My spirits sank when I turned my head and saw a rowboat propelled by four strong men fast overhauling me. The game was almost up, but I was not ready to concede just yet. Instead of attempting to out-swim the little vessel, I dived and made towards it, surfacing just behind the stern, as it were. To those on the boat itself, it seemed as though I had disappeared completely. I treaded water for a good few minutes as they cast about, trying to understand whence I had gone. It was an admirable ploy and though I was fast becoming exhausted, I could not help but find amusement in it.
After the first minutes events took a new turn as someone aboard the Valiant took out a cone that amplified the voice and began shouting to the boat. “Behind ye! Behind ye!” The sailors dutifully looked stern-wards and of course I ducked down beneath the waves, using the bulk of the boat to hide myself.
I began to think that escape might be possible after all, but the sea had other ideas. A chance swell lifted me into the sight of the sailors, nearly dashing me against the boat in the process. In short order hefty hands were reaching for me and I was dumped aboard the boat as unceremoniously as a side of beef.
“You lead us a merry chase, lass,” the officer at the head of the boat informed me with a cruel thinning of his lips. “You will regret that before the day is through, I promise you that.”
He wore a powdered wig, which assured me that what he said was undoubtedly true. In my experience, limited as it was, no good ever came from a man in a wig. I shared this opinion to the merriment of the sailors, who snorted and hid their faces so as not to earn the ire of the man who was now regarding me with as vicious as an expression as ever took up residence on a human visage. “I will make sport with you,” he promised with an unpleasant leer.
Good sense demanded that I made no reply to that, I had antagonized my captors quite enough. As the boat was raised up to the ship I began to regret the failure of my escape most keenly, for I saw that there were manacles waiting for me in the hands of the sailors.
Sure enough I was clapped in irons the moment I set food aboard the Valiant, and most uncomfortable they were on wet skin. The day had turned cold and I shivered in my wet garments as the officer responsible for my apprehension took audience with Captain Morrow.
With all the aplomb of a half drowned cat, I waited, enduring looks and whispers and the occasional glare from those around. The other women had all been safely stowed below decks, so I faced the wrath of the captain alone as he approached me, his expression severe.
“That was a foolish jape, Mistress Wilde.” There was heavy censure in his voice, which was otherwise rather pleasant. It had a deep timbre to it, the sort of sound that rolls around in one’s head long after the words have been spoken.
I found myself momentarily tounge-tied as I searched for a response that did not seem entirely absurd. This in spite of the fact that the time for being concerned about seeming senseless was well over. I had made a scene worthy of the papers. “Thank you,” I finally said, dipping into a small curtsey. My sodden petticoat brushed the deck as I bobbed down, then slapped against my lower shin as I stood straight.
“I did not say it by way of congratulations,” he snapped directly.
“Then I withdraw my thanks.” That reply came quickly, slipping off my tongue before I had time to consider it properly, or at all.
The captain had been in the process of turning to leave me to my fate, but my words bought him snapping back towards me, not unlike a clockwork toy. He looked at me with irritation, but there was some curiosity in his gaze as he examined me as carefully as if I had turned out to be a talking fish dredged up out of the deep. “You do understand your situation, do you not, Miss Wilde? You are a convict being transported to the Australian penal colonies.”
I hastened to assure him that I did understand that very well indeed.
“Then why, might I ask, do you speak and behave like a dowager taking a dip at Blackpool?”
I understood immediately what he meant by his question. He was wondering how somebody of my obvious breeding had fallen so far from grace. It was a question I had no intention of answering directly, for the direct answer pained me deeply. “It is fate who should be taking this voyage, not I,” I made the reply with a small smile so as not to seem overwrought with despair.
He smiled for some hidden reason and his face was transformed. There was no doubting that Captain Morrow was a handsome man, he had strong features set in fine bone structure slightly on the narrow side. When he smiled small dimples appeared on his cheeks and I felt my heart flutter quite inappropriately as my own lips curled in response. For a fleeting moment, the ship went away, complete with those who acted as guards and even the rolling waves seemed to drift far into the background. I found myself absorbed in his gaze, fancying that it was just he and I in that place.
Then rough hands were laid on me and the fantasy was shattered as Captain Morrow’s men drew me towards the lower deck. I hadn’t seen him give the order, but before I knew what was happening I was down in the prison deck, a place sheltered from natural light in a way that made me temporarily blind.
A cheer went up, a half celebratory, half jeering sound from my fellow inmates. I had expected it, but it was no easier to endure for the expectation. The impulse to make a rude gesture was strong, but my arms were occupied with Captain Morrow’s stalwarts so I had no choice but to endure the comments made as we passed down the clear center.
Part of the deck was open and hung with hammocks, but there was a barred section towards the rear and I knew without asking that I was headed for that locked off space. I found my breath coming quicker, my heart beating faster as panic rose. “Please,” I begged my captors. “Please don’t lock me away.”
“Ye dived over the edge, ye wee nut, of course we’ll be locking ye away,” the Scotsman to my right informed me gruffly.
I made no more appeals to their sense of mercy. I did notice that most of the barred area was not locked, but occupied simply for space. Several women already sat and lounged on bunks bolted to the walls and bars. I nodded to them politely as I was escorted into a cell and locked away most securely, but mercifully not before the manacles were removed. It seemed I was to be free to pace my cage at will, though that was little comfort. As the guard’s key turned in the lock, my fear that the ship might sink and I would be trapped below decks to drown like a rat made my mouth dry.
I did not have long to fret about my situation as I was soon distracted by the appearance of a tall man in a black velvet coat who made his way down the stairs leading to the main deck with great aplomb. He moved with a curious motion that drew my eye, his gait somehow sinuous and dangerous.
“Ladies!” His gravelly voice boomed over our heads, cutting through chatter and making space for silence. “I am Mr Roake, master of education and discipline for the next eight months of your lives. It is my hope that you will land in the colonies better women than you left these shores. To this end you will find yourselves attending regular lessons in which those of you who do not know how to read and write will be taught to do so.” He ran a supercilious eye across the prison deck, finding each of us wanting in our own way. “I will also be handling affairs of discipline. Those of you who do not obey the rules I shall lay out in short order will find yourselves very sorry for it.”
Already I did not like this Roake. There was a peculiar glee in his voice as he subsequently made reference to birch rods and canes and other implements that might be used to impart discipline if he so saw fit. Some of the younger women and children began to sniffle at his devilish descriptions of those instruments of pain.
“One of you has already distinguished herself in disobedience,” he said, casting his eye towards the rear of the ship where I was incarcerated. I felt a shiver pass through my very bones as his eyes settled on my dripping form. The cold feeling grew as he walked towards the cells, a path silently forming around him as he moved. There were no titters of excitement or murmurs of appreciation for this man, though he was not unpleasant in aspect. I could only conclude that the others felt what I felt, the presence of a predator, a fox let loose amongst the chickens.