This is the second sample of my new novel Artful. The first chapter was on this blog last Sunday.
If you would like to buy it please go to Amazon or to Smashwords.
CHAPTER 2 A FRIEND AND ENEMIES
As the line of convicts shuffled down the road towards the river they saw long masts rearing from the decks of countless ships berthed against the banks of theThames.
‘The Transportation Fleet,’ said an old man beside Dodger.
‘We’re not going on them, are we?’ he asked, his eyes widening. ‘Them hulks, all round the world?’
‘That’s the plan, son.’
‘Well it’s a blooming nonsensical plan if you ask me. I doubt any of ’em would cross to Southwark without sinking.
‘Shut up,’ called one of the guards.
In surly, grumbling silence, the convicts trudged up the gangway of the first ship. As he neared the deck Dodger saw three rats bolt down the plank towards land.
The man behind him sucked in air in a loud, horrified gasp. ‘They know it’s cursed,’ he cried.
‘Not half as much as you are,’ cried one of the sailors, making his friends laugh at the jest.
The ship that Jack had been assigned to was called ‘The Hornet.’ It was already ancient when it had been pressed into service to supply the fleet at Trafalgar. Before that, or so it was rumoured, it had been a slave ship running fromBristolto Africa and theWest Indies. As the men were shoved below decks to the damp and fetid hold awaiting them they could well believe these rumours to be true.
One elderly man who had spent his years tramping the highways became wild-eyed with terror at the sight of the pent up, noisome gloom and began a fearsome howl of distress which only ended when two guards knocked him unconscious.
‘The bastards,’ said Dodger but not so loud that they could hear him.
‘Let’s hope they’ve killed him,’ said a huge man with a sprawling, knotted beard. ‘It’ll mean more grub for us.’
Crimp pushed his way into the large man’s shadow. ‘Don’t believe it, Trench,’ he said. ‘They’ll eat his grub themselves or sell it to us, what’s starving.’
‘Shut yer mouth, Crimp,’ said the bearded man. ‘I’m sick of the sound of yer already.’
Crimp laughed but it was a laugh devoid of humour. He turned his eyes towards Dodger. ‘What you looking at?’ he growled.
Crimp grabbed him by the throat. ‘Well see you don’t look at me in future. Not unless I tells yer to. It’s me who will do the looking, and the catching.’
‘Leave him be,’ said the big curly haired man who had been watching Jack and Crimp before they boarded. ‘He’s only a boy.’
‘I can guess yer interest, so I can,’ Crimp sneered at him.
The man did not answer but gave a quick glance towards the guards. They were looking elsewhere. He took a step towards Crimp and seized him by the hair. He twisted it violently, causing the little man’s back to arch over, exposing a scrawny throat. The big man ran his fingers slowly from one side of the throat to the other.
‘See here, boy,’ the big man said to Jack, turning Crimp as though he were a doll. ‘This neck is little stronger than a rabbit’s.’
He jabbed his finger at Crimp’s gulping Adam’s Apple making him squeal. ‘One chop from me and it’s his grub we’ll be eating.’
Crimp waved his gloved hand ineffectually in the air while his left tried vainly to unloose the big man’s hold.
‘Enough,’ said Trench. He squared up to the big man and gave a belligerent stare. ‘What’s your name, friend?’
The man released his hold upon Crimp’s hair and sized Trench up and down. ‘Beresford,’ he answered. ‘Want to make something of it?’
Trench shook his head. ‘No. Not this time. But just remember one thing.’ He pointed to the skinny one-eyed man. ‘I can hit Fred Crimp, I can punish him, but you can’t.’
Beresford stared at Trench for a moment. ‘Fair enough,’ he said. ‘And the same goes for the boy. I can punish him, but neither you or your creature touch him.’
Trench nodded. ‘It’s a bargain.’ He stalked off, Crimp running after him.
Jack grinned up at his protector. ‘Thanks very much, mister. My name’s Jack Dawkins.’
The man gave a slow smile. ‘Mine’s Beresford.’
‘Just Beresford? Ain’t you got a first name?’
‘If I ever had, I’ve forgotten it.’
Jack nodded sagely. ‘I think Beresford is right enough for you.’
The big man grinned and ruffled Jack’s hair.
A whistle sounded and a platoon of Marines hurried down the steps and took up position, muskets cocked and pointing at the convicts. They were followed by a wiry-looking navel officer of about forty years of age. He glanced about him sourly and stood to one side of the stairs.
‘Convicts rise for Captain Flowers,’ he cried. His voice was every bit as sour as his glance.
A portly figure came down the stairs and gazed upon them. He looked bluff and genial, but there was something in the way that the posture of the Marines changed which suggested that it might be best not to take him for granted.
‘My name is Captain Flowers,’ he said in a voice as genial as his looks. ‘I am charged with the duty of transporting you toNew South Wales. What you choose to make of your life there is up to you. It will not be easy for you. Transportation is a punishment and you do well to remember this.’
He glanced around at the convicts who shuffled in their chains. Not a man of them seemed in any doubt that they were being punished.
‘However,’ Flowers continued, ‘for those of you who repent of your wickedness, obey the laws of the colony and work hard, you may perhaps find some opportunity which would not be made available to you inEngland. In truth you may take this one last chance to redeem yourselves and make your lives anew.’
He paused again as if expecting some sign of appreciation, applause perhaps or three cheers. There was none. With a sigh he resumed.
‘Until we reach shore, however, you will find no such opportunities. My only advice to you is to bend your spirits to the arduous journey ahead of you, to keep up your strength and health, to follow the regulations of my officers and crew and to avoid bad company.’
One of the Marines chuckled at the idea of any of the prisoners avoiding bad company. The Captain glared at him, then gave a quick nod to the sergeant who instantly frog-marched the man up the stairs.
Some of the convicts grinned at the look of fear upon the Marine’s face. The more intelligent of them took note of the Captain’s swift and summary punishment. He looked a soft touch but in his case looks were clearly deceiving.
‘You will probably not see me again,’ the Captain continued. ‘Not until we dock inNew South Walesin seven months’ time. If you do see me it will be because you have been brought before me because you have committed some misdemeanour. For your sakes I hope that this does not occur. Good day gentlemen.’
‘Silly old fool,’ muttered Crimp.
Beresford looked at him and shook his head wearily.
The Captain left but sour, wiry officer remained behind. He stood in silent contemplation of them, nodding his head as if acknowledging to himself that he had been correct about something all along yet regretted that he had been.
The convicts eyed him expectantly.
‘My name is Lieutenant Bolt,’ he said. ‘I am second-in-command of the ship. When the Captain sleeps, I remain awake. What he proposes, I dispose. Where he leads Sunday Prayers, Lieutenant Bolt leads the daily curses.
‘For all intents and purposes there will never be occasion for you to see Captain Flowers, not unless you’ve done something that will only be answered by the cat of nine tails, the keel-haul or the rope. But you will see more of me. And some of you may even come to prefer the thought of the cat.’
He gave one last, lingering look at the convicts and padded up the stairs.
At that moment there sounded a dreadful clamour above their heads. The convicts stared up fearfully as if their eyes could pierce both dark and deck. The noise continued, a gallop of feet, a clatter of wood and metal.
‘It’s the crew getting the ship ready to sail,’ one of the convicts explained.
‘How would you know?’ sneered Crimp.
‘I was a sailor for twenty years. I know everything there is to know about ships.’
‘Will this one get us toNew South Wales?’ a young man asked him anxiously.
‘Some of us,’ the convict answered. ‘But not all.’
They heard the slow rasp of the anchor being weighed, the thunder and slap of the sails being lowered and then the ship lurched, bellied over and began to wallow its way into the river.
Within minutes the ground was awash with the vomit or men who had never before travelled on anything other than their own two feet.
Jack was one of them. He tried to reach a bucket but never made it. But he saw a more useful receptacle. He consoled himself that the contents of his stomach drenched Crimp from waist to feet.
Jack spent the whole of the first week being sick. Some of the convicts had been in the navy and guessed that they were crossing theBay of Biscay, the worst stretch of water in the world for rolling seas and erupting stomachs. But eventually they rounded the northern edge ofSpainand headed out to the comparative calm of theAtlantic Ocean.
Jack was never sea-sick again but became gripped by a fierce hunger for food, any food, no matter how rank and unpalatable. Fortunately, there was almost sufficient as most of the convicts had little appetite for the slops put in front of them. Jack ate them. He was determined that he would survive the terrible voyage to the forsaken continent of the south.