The Thunder slid in to port as the first gold cracks appeared on the night’s fading horizon. As dawn itself broke free, and a glow flooded the front windows of the Old Manor House, the old man sat bolt upright, threw back the blankets and cried for Richard.
‘He’s on his way father.’ Rachel tried to reassure him but he seemed not even to see her there, just called for her brother. ‘We sent a message to his Captain’ she told him. She must be patient she knew. ‘The ship has docked sir, he will be here soon. Landsman says they have gone to fetch him.’ He did not seem to hear, did not even look in her direction.
‘Richard! Richard! Boy, is that you?’ The old man continued to call, his voice hoarser by the minute. He slumped back. Rachel leaned forward and took her father’s hand.
‘Don’t worry father, it’s me, Rachel, I’m here now, rest easy and sip this. She offered him a glass of Mrs Smallpiece’s best porter but he dashed it away with surprising force; the liquid splashed across Rachel’s dress. She stifled exasperation. On the light muslin the streaks could have been blood. Her father was no less abrupt in dying than in life. Before her mind had a chance to dwell further on the miseries of the past few years when failing health had forced the proud captain from the seas against his wishes, choking gasps from beside her caused Rachel to turn back to the old man. His chest rattled and he spat his last breath. There was an immediate deep silence in the room.
‘Oh! Father…!’ She sighed deeply and leaned over him but there was no sign of life. Gone, and still no sight of Richard. Hands trembling, she crossed herself, leaned forward to kiss the old man’s still warm forehead, then his laid hands across his chest before sitting herself back at his bedside. She did her best to breathe deeply and think slowly. She was alone. She had never been this alone before. A million things raced through her mind. Landsman and Richard must surely be here soon. Richard would know what to do. Her breathing was shallower now, she was trying to keep calm although her mind was racing with previous impossibilities. There was no one here to stop her now, to insist she wear the latest fashion, grow and style her short curls, and get misty eyed about which eligible young men were on her dance card at the Admiral’s Ball. Heart quickening again she began to pace the room as alternatives tossed themselves in her head. She must keep calm, Richard must surely be here soon and doubtless Cousin Henry would not be far behind. She sighed, Henry with his squeaky shoes and the soft round words that dropped like treacle on to thick bread, comforting at first but ultimately, for her, always less than satisfying. There was no longer the excuse of her father to be looked after, and thus no longer any reason for her to delay her marriage to Henry. As a missionary family they might seek out the sights of the exciting distant lands he had promised her they might visit. But, still, first and foremost, she would have to be a missionary’s wife; a follower not a missionary herself. It would be his adventure not hers, and no adventure at all if she bore his child. She recalled the day of their engagement, sitting in the drawing room of his parents’ house with his mother and her own father.
‘You may travel at first with Henry but you’ll come back here to have your son, of course, as I did. And then, in time, when God wills it and Henry is returned, I shall move to the Dower house and this place will be for Henry and his heirs.’ Lady Masterton left no room for doubt.
Hmmm, so she was to have a son and they were not even married yet? Rachel wondered how that might be, assuredly not to her taste. She shuddered inwardly, both at the thought of childbearing and at the prospect of an infinite number of years confined here, for it would not just be confinement before the arrival of the child but for who knows how long afterwards too.
‘I shall be sent who knows where my dear,’ Henry offered, ‘and it will be a relief to me to know you are safe here with Mama,’
‘And if I should like to be a missionary too?’ she countered, daring not to look at either her betrothed or his mother. She heard an exasperated sigh escape her father’s lips followed by a curt,
‘Rachel, what a thought!’
Suddenly emboldened, she added hastily, ‘I have heard tell of women missionaries to many places, even of a society for them to travel to far off places doing God’s work…’ But, before she could finish, Henry had responded,
‘Come my dearest girl, as my wife you shall do as well at God’s work. And, with you at my side His will shall indeed be done!’
And then his mother’s butler had announced it time for dinner and she had seen from her father’s expression that the subject was closed.
The memory brought her pacing to a stop at the foot of the bed and Rachel regarded the old man, now quiet in final repose. Her dearest father, she had loved him, and he her, but their views on a good life for her had differed widely. She and her twin had grown up alike, not just uncommonly so in looks, but in their natures too. Richard claimed an extra inch in height and she supposed that after the last four years at sea he must have muscles, whereas she had retained a slender almost boyish figure. Both feisty in their own ways Richard had been more foolhardy, Rachel more cautious, but both felt the claustrophobia of life in this small seaport and longed for excitement. Indeed, had taken every chance to create it, such that eventually the Captain was prevailed upon to take them to sea with him. Rachel had been disappointed that after their life at sea the old man had insisted on very traditional roles for the twins as they grew older, to mixed success. Now, once Richard arrived, Rachel feared there would be no change for her for her twin would surely be of the same view as their father. There would be more need than ever for her to behave; how might she manage that? She recalled their thirteenth birthday celebration when Richard had outlined his plans to go to sea as a cabin boy and make his way through the ranks to master of his own ship, just like their father. The captain had applauded this idea. Expressing her wish to do the same the old man’s response was simply,
‘Don’t be ridiculous child, you’ll find a good man and have a family, the sea is no place for a gentlewoman.’
It had been the winter after that when, with Richard now away at sea, she had found herself bundled off to balls and parties, time and again in the company of Cousin Henry.
Startled by a knock on the door she hastily moved away from the bed as Landsman entered.
‘A letter for Captain Wainwright, madam, from master Richard’s ship.’
‘Thank you Landsman,’ was all she could manage. Nodding, he left her. Alone again! Hands shaking she broke the seal and read,
Dear Sir, I regret to inform you…
She had almost stopped breathing now,
….your son never returned from shore leave in Sainte Martino…
She could read no more, dropping the letter she gasped for air. Missing! She reached the window in time to see Landsman turning the messenger away. No further reflection needed, she had the answer to all her fears for the future. Seizing the razor from her father’s dressing table Rachel hacked off as many of her wayward curls as she could. Seconds later she was along the corridor and into Richard’s wardrobe in search of britches and shoes. Not many more minutes still and, leaving the stained muslin dress on the floor, she was on the coast path weaving downwards to the town, with a pack over her shoulder and a cap on her head all the while whistling as her sailor brother would have done.
For the last four hours they had been stacked upright, arms squashed to their sides in the overloaded carriage. It was a wonder the horses could cope for although the three sitting opposite Susanna looked reasonably spread across their bench, on her own side the gentlemen to the left and right of her could each have filled a one single-handedly. She had not moved, had been scarcely able to breathe, and too terrified to lose the cloth bag balanced on her knees. The carriage lurched forward and her knuckles whitened as she gripped the bag yet tighter. The man to the left was sweating the excesses of the last Inn stop. She could feel his heat, damp even through her thick shawl. It gave her chills, worrying ones. She had been desperately fighting waves of nausea since he had insisted on helping her get on board back in Bath, his hands resting uncomfortably long on her hips as she hoisted herself into the carriage. She had tried to move her arm away earlier, and he had taken the excuse to lift his own and lay it over hers, placing his hand on to her knee in a proprietary fashion.
Leaning towards her, breathing beer breath that sickened her further, he whispered,
‘Don’t worry my dear, Thomas, John Thomas, can take care of you, you will want for nothing... ‘
It took but a moment for her to turn her head away, but alas too late to prevent him seeing the flush of shame as she took in his implication. She did not want to know his name and most certainly did not seek his attentions. She concentrated hard on her breathing so that he might not sense her panic.
‘My brother is meeting me in Tydmouth’ she replied, out loud and in as firm a voice as she could muster, determined that all around would hear. She was sensing the need of witnesses to this encounter.
The old lady opposite her, apparently asleep, opened an eye and looked straight at her,
‘That’s as well my dear; one can’t trust anyone in that place – too many sailors. And the press men. They say they only take the men but there’s some out there, I know, a gatherin’ young girls too.’ She paused. ‘For nefarious purposes.’
Uncertain what that might mean exactly Susanna nonetheless caught the implication in the old lady’s message. She tried not to let discomfort show on her face, but she couldn’t stop the flush she felt from spreading further across her cheeks. She felt John Thomas’s thigh pressing harder against her. He leaned forward again but this time spoke out loud, addressing the old woman,
‘Don’t trouble yourself madam, I shall see that this young woman is placed in good hands if it’s the last thing I do…’
‘Really sir, there is no need, sir, my brother will be there…’ A lame response but Susanna could think of nothing else, her mind was too busy wondering how she might avoid the unpleasantness attached to the thigh still pressing hard against her. If only she had been a boy! Better still, if she had stayed home and married William. No, she caught herself, actually, that would have been even worse. In her mind’s eye an image of William as she had last seen him appeared unbidden. With his bow legs and in his dirty, worn, riding boots he had a whip in hand and a wild grin on his face and he was chasing her around the barn. It was a sharp reminder of why she was here now and of the fate she knew she could not embrace.
‘You have to marry someone,’ was her brother’s contribution to the conversation on the matter of her supposed need to get married.
‘With father and I gone on mission duties you must look after Mama and you will need a man.’
Seeing her horrified look-he could not but see it for she knew her face could hide nothing-he had concluded,
‘And he’d be a great catch, he has his own estate.’ He grinned at her, ‘he may be a little older, and, I agree, he has a want of hair, but he could give you everything you desire, you’d want for nothing.’
Except for love, she thought to herself.
Some while later, a little after Exeter and in a swirl of fog, the man on her right got down and Susanna was able to stretch a little sideways although as she did so it seemed John Thomas’s thigh followed her. She wanted to clamp her bag to the seat between them but she dared not risk the loss of it, everything precious was in there. Breathing deeply she set her mind to what she must do when they arrived and, in truth, there was no brother to meet her. She was sure that Tydmouth was where he had been headed but when he had told of his plans he had certainly had no idea she would be following, nor that she might have need or inclination to do so anytime soon. But, there was no choice now, she could not, would not, marry William and that was that. And, if no William, then there was no future, no home, no choice. Her stomach shifted and churned at the thought of it all and then a brief memory flashed in front of her eyes: dear Mama, pale, grey, eyes barely open as she struggled to breathe. Susanna banished the vision with a shudder, she must not think of mama, the present called for a plan not sentiment.
‘Boy soup!’ Was he being offered a soup made of boys? Jack smiled despite himself, he supposed he must be becoming resigned to his new underground life. Whatever, ‘boy soup’ seemed to be the only English words the prison guard knew. They got used any time he needed Jack’s attention. This time it was a fairly literal statement, if you could count this watery gruel as anything edible. There seemed to be something hard and grey on the tray beside the soup too, although what exactly was not easy to say for everything in this humid, stuffy cell was a shade of dungeon grey. There was a crack of a window but it was high up, at foot level on the street outside. Any light daring to enter was filtered through whatever filth was on the ground. It was rainy season on the island of Sainte Martino too which did not improve matters, just varied the shade of grey a little towards the darker side after each tropical shower. The only major change was the smell which, like the soup, ranged from rank to just about floridly bearable. Jack dropped the grey ball in the soup and waited. In a minute it would all become porridge like and then he would swallow it as fast as possible and pray that it was less rotten than the last lot which had had him rolling in pain all night. If the very worst happened and he died, how, he wondered, would they find out he was gone? He thought about his sister a lot, her and father. Jack dreamed about them a lot too. Dreams of happy days when father, fit and adventurous, had taken them on his travels, days when the Old Manor House was a haven not a burden. Had some message reached them of his plight, or had Sandy not dared advise the Admiralty? He thought of the dreams he and Sandy had talked of. Dreams of returning to the Old Manor House and, enriched with bounty from the Caribbean campaign, reviving the parts of the estate neglected in recent years since father’s illness. Impossible now. Would Sandy even look for him? Jack was thinking maybe not. His thoughts always got stuck at this point. Sandy had risked a lot for Jack, and Jack’s prayers–he had a lot of time to pray these days and did so at length–were divided between asking the Lord to protect Sandy from a court martial, and asking for one more sight of him, so that he might apologise for that awful night and the careless adventure that had led him here now. Foolishness, as father might have called it. He shuddered despite the sticky Caribbean heat; foolishness that could yet lead them both to the gallows.