Here is the third sample of my new book Artful, available on Amazon Kindle.
Most of the voyage was spent in deep gloom. There were several hatches in the deck and when the weather permitted these were opened to allow shafts of light to pierce the darkness of the hold and dimly illuminate the nearest patch of squalor.
The convicts looked with longing upon these pillars of light and the strongest staked their claims to territory closest to their glow. The weakest spent their time watching for the strong men’s attention to waver so that they could snatch a moment in the light. When the hatches were shut the only light came from half a dozen shuttered lamps high up in the rafters, out of reach of the convicts. No candles were allowed below.
Because the darkness thwarted sight other senses became more acute to compensate. This was no advantage; far from it. Jack could close his eyes to hide the sight of ugly faces and dread disease. But he could not close his ears. The hold acted like a vast drum, catching and amplifying every sound. Men muttering in corners, men snivelling with hunger, cries and curses, groans and shrieks, all were picked up, intensified and delivered hot to every aching ear. Some found the noise so intolerable they lost their heads. Their yells and screams added to the stew of sound and made it more unbearable still.
But if the sound of the hold was dreadful the smell was far worse. The air that the convicts breathed was as stale as pestilence. It blocked the nose, lay sticky in the mouth and clung like wet flannel to the lungs. Jack knew he had to breathe to live but every breath was a torment which he yearned not to have to take.
Mixed with the foulness that was the air lay a stench exhaled by unwashed bodies, leaking wounds and bodily waste. The stink felt like a living thing, a vast whale snorting and pulsating. You could not escape this stench no matter how you tried. And still, mingled with this, were yet more particular smells, individual, transient, bubbling up to seize the unwary nostril with sickening new surprise.
Chains existed in plenty in the hold. But they were no longer necessary. Every man felt weighted down by the unendurable burden of their surroundings. They barely moved, some only twitching their legs a few times each day. Others, the more determined, would shuffle from one side of the hold to another to keep some grip upon their minds, praying that this voyage would end and that they would still have need for legs and hands.
The oldest and the most exhausted merely sat and stared with clouded eyes, all hope abandoned. They even watched without distress as rats chewed on their toes and fingers. Jack spent long hours frightening the rodents away.
‘Why do you bother?’ asked one old man. ‘Let ’em eat me.’
It was worse than a nightmare. The big men like Trench carved out rough territories which they held by fist and boot from all rivals. Offerings of food and sex were given to them. They repaid this tribute by not attacking and maiming their followers. All others in the hold were prey to savage, murderous and unprovoked assault.
A few men like Beresford avoided these dreadful turf wars. These were the few who combined physical strength with a silent determination to remain their own man and refuse to get entangled with the concerns of others. It required strength of character to do this. Those who succeeded did so alone, without the support of others.
Jack was glad that Beresford had taken him under his wing for he knew that he had earned the special enmity of Trench and Crimp.
Apart from Beresford the only other person he came to trust was Tommy Windle. He was a cabin boy a year or so younger than Jack. Along with a gang of sailors he climbed down to the hold every morning to bring food to the convicts. On the first visit he had been surprised to find a convict of his own age. He was even more impressed when he heard the convict’s name.
‘The Artful Dodger,’ he whispered to Jack. ‘You must be the famousest convict on the ship.’
Jack glanced around swiftly. ‘Keep your voice down, will yer? It don’t pay to let everyone know it.’
‘I’d love to be as famous as you,’ Tommy continued, unabashed. ‘It must be really grand.’
Jack gave a crooked grin. ‘Yes really grand. It’s earned me these choice apartments.’
Tommy looked perplexed for a moment then realised the joke and smiled. ‘I can make it better if you want,’ he said.
‘Make it better? How?’
‘I can get you extra grub, a glass of gin, even an extra blanket.’
Jack gave the cabin boy a suspicious look. ‘Can you now? And what would you be wanting in return?’
‘Just to know you, Dodger. That would be enough.’ Tommy fell silent, looking around carefully before leaning close towards Jack. ‘And I’d love to be able to pick pockets,’ he whispered. ‘Will you learn me how to do it?’
Jack scratched his head, thinking fast.
‘All right,’ he said. ‘But it will cost more than just the odd glass of gin. One a day at the very least. And some cash. And it’s got to be a secret. I’ll deny it if you tell a soul.’
Tommy nodded fiercely. ‘Not a soul. On my mother’s grave.’
Apart from Trench and Crimp the rest of the convicts troubled Jack not at all; he could argue better, curse fouler and insult more woundingly than any of them. But these skills had less effect upon Trench and Crimp because they were more stupid than most. Crimp could understand the more obvious insults and sometimes chanced a kick at Jack when Beresford was far away. Trench merely glared at Jack, biding a time when he would be free to swat him like a fly. That time would not occur while Beresford remained watchful.
It was when The Hornet was wallowing through the Roaring Forties, far to the south of India, that Beresford took ill.