Off the Coast of Southern England
The rain and the wind lashed the deck as the boat pitched heavily in the storm. Fourth Leftenant Bush could barely hear the shouts of the men as they frantically swarmed over the rigging trying to keep the ship under control. Bush himself just clung to the railings and tried to keep his balance as he bellowed orders.
The Gallant was a small ship and was suffering in the violent storm. The Captain was desperately trying to keep her facing into the oncoming waves, but the wind kept changing, threatening to swing the boat round to flounder in the heavy seas.
A huge wave hit the ship and it pitched dangerously to the port. A sail broke free and whipped round frantically in the wind, its bollock hitting a sailor in the face and sending him crashing to the deck.
'Get that man below,' cried Master Keen as he hung onto the forward mast. Two sailors hurried to obey and Bush saw the bloodied man being taken down.
He was worried. Three men down with injuries already and if the storm continued they could very well lose the ship, but it looked as if the Captain was in no mood to be trifled with. Bush shook his head like terrier to dislodge the rain and tried to remain upright.
'We must batten down Captain,' yelled First Leftenant Woolcroft as he struggled up to the quarter deck, slipping and sliding as the ship dangerously pitched.
'No we can ride this one out,' replied the Captain, his eyes firmly fixed on the sails.
Woolcroft glanced around the other officers in panic. 'But sir. If we continue on this tack we could lose the rigging.'
'No, if we continue west ward we will be fine. Just keep the men on their toes,' replied the captain.
Woolcroft, not a confident man in any circumstances eyed, the wet bedraggled sailors clinging onto the rigging for dear life. 'But sir…'
The Captain rounded on him, spitting rain water out of his mouth. 'Mister Woolcroft,' he growled. 'Obey my orders.' He took a breath and seemed to calm down and tried again. 'We can ride this out. This is a good crew.' He turned and surveyed the frantic activity on deck.
'Look,' he shouted into the wind. 'They are doing me proud.'
Woolcroft looked to protest again, but at the glazed look on the Captain's face he caved. He touched his hand to his forehead. 'Aye aye Captain,' he said quietly.
'If we ride this one out, we'll be famous in the fleet,' yelled the captain happily into the wind. 'And besides,' he added under his breath. 'Who will miss a few of these mangy curs?'
Bush cursed. He had known this would happen. A man was going to die and there was nothing he could do about it…
'Help me Mister Bush.' The boy's eyes were wild and screamed at him. 'Please. I don't want to drown.'
He tightened his grip, but he could feel the boy slipping. 'Hold on boy. I won't let you.' He looked frantically round for aid. 'Just hold on.'
But he knew that was a lie. He could feel the boy slipping in his grip.
'Come on Midshipman Rogers. Hang on. That's a bloody order you little bastard,' he bellowed, hoping his anger could keep the boy alive.
But the force of Bush's cries were not enough. Time stood still and then – through the storm he heard the boy's last words perfectly. 'I'm sorry sir. I can't swim,' he said almost apologetically as he fell into the sea.
Bush lowered his head. He stared into the raging sea as the rain beat down.
He vaguely heard the shouts of the men as they scrambled around him, but he knew it was futile.
He knew the truth.
'It's all right lad. I can't swim either,' he said softly
Some years later
First Leftenant Bush gave one of his rare lopsided smiles.
'I am not pleased Mr Bush. And kindly do not smirk,' said Hornblower, not even looking up from the desk.
Bush did his best and failed miserably. 'And how long will you be accompanying the admiral?' he asked.
'For three months.' Hornblower pounded the desk in frustration. 'Three miserable months of parties, inspections and dress uniforms, while you get to do some real work.'
'Not so sir,' said Bush placatingly. 'All we are to do is provide a show of force. If we encounter a pirate I'll eat my hat. It cannot be worse than Styles' cooking. Anyway, it will be an excellent chance to run the crew through some maneuvers. I already have some planned.'
Hornblower eyed the rather battered object under Bush's arm and said nothing. After a moment's awkward pause Bush realized that something was wrong.
'What do you know about Commodore Strangway Mr Bush?'
Puzzled by the change in topic Bush frowned. 'Only that he is a successful officer.'
Hornblower humpfed. 'Yes, because of his noble blood. Commodore Strangway is also Lord Strangway. One of the richest men in Devon.' He turned to face Bush. 'There is a difference between good seamanship and good breeding. Don't you agree?'
Bush looked puzzled, then realization dawned on him. 'I am not being left in charge,' he stated.
Hornblower sighed. 'No William. I am sorry.' He went on. 'The Commodore wanted to 'rediscover his sea legs' as he so quaintly put it, and so he will be taking charge while I am gone. We are to pick him up in Kingston.'
Bush merely nodded, but inside he felt hollow. Sensing his mood, Hornblower smiled wanly. 'Cheer up William. It is only three months. What can happen in three months?'
The Hotspur arrived in Kingston and all hands were called on deck to see off the Captain – Commodore Strangway would not be arriving until tomorrow.
'Look after my ship, Mr Bush,' warned Hornblower under his breath as he made his way down the line of officers.
'You have my word sir,' replied Bush.
'Grrr,' replied Hornblower menacingly as he swung himself over the side into the longboat.
After Hornblower had gone Bush turned to the men and eyed them off. He was pleased to note that even some of the younger officers trembled. Hornblower was not the only one who instilled fear. 'I don't want you to think that while the Captain is away the mice will play,' he grumbled evilly. The crew tensed, wondering what horrible fate he had in store for them. Bush smiled inwardly. 'However, as we seem to have a spare day at port I am ordering an extra ration of rum and a free day for all.'
A cheer went up from the crew.
Bush smiled lazily as he turned to Mr Orrock. 'Crew dismissed if you please,' he said with a cock of his head.
Mathews had volunteered to take the night watch with Mr Garvin. He could hear the happy singing of the crew and the violins as the men enjoyed themselves below decks.
'They haven't had a night off like this for ages Mr Mathews,' said Garvin. Even Mr Bush had relented and treated all the officers and midshipmen to a relaxed dinner in the mess. Bush had even consented to tell a few battle stories. Garvin had laughed inwardly as the younger midshipmen had slowly unwound – their curiosity overcoming their fear of the dreaded first leftenant as they listened to his tales and plagued him with questions until Bush had had enough.
'A Frenchman, Mr Bush?' asked Jones in disbelief. 'You shared a berth with a frog?'
'Aye that I did lad.'
'What was he like sir?' asked another, clearly in awe that Bush had even seen a Frenchman.
'Horrible man. He smelt of garlic and had a hook for a hand,' he said winking at Mr Orrock.
Orrock picked up the clue. 'And did he not wear an eye patch too sir?'
'Only on his third eye Mr Orrock…'
Garvin came to sit by Mathews. Mathews liked the young midshipman. He was tall and gangly, with a boy's face, but he always seemed unfazed and strangely perceptive of the men and never stood on ceremony unless it was needed. These were attributes Mathews liked in a man and he suspected that one day he would make a good officer.
'Aye sir. They need a good break they do all right. The last few months have been a strain on them. You can only wind a rope up so much before it breaks.'
'Indeed Mr Mathews, indeed.' And the two lapsed into companionable silence as they continued their watch.
Later the ship was quiet. The men where sleeping off the revelries of the night and the two watch officers were silently checking their marks and recording the logs.
Suddenly a marine's whistle went off. 'Boat a starboard,' came a cry… this was picked up and carried around. They rushed to the side of the boat.
'Who goes there,' yelled Garvin, peering into the darkness at the unknown vessel.
'Captain coming aboard,' came the faint cry from the darkness.
Garvin turned to Mathews. 'Mr Hornblower back?' he pondered.
But the more worldly Mathews shook his head and looked nervous. 'No, the new Captain, unless I am very much mistaken.'
Garvin's eyes widened. 'Oh no. Quick, go wake Mr Bush and the other officers.' And Mathews hurried off to rouse them while Garvin passed the word for all hands.
A few minutes later Bush came on deck, more furious than anything. The first quiet night in months ruined because this desk jockey wanted to show he was a worthy sea captain by turning up early. He had seen this sort of behaviour before and Bush was not impressed.
'All right, Mr Garvin. Get the men assembled for our new Captain's arrival,' he said running one hand through his messy hair and futilely trying to fix his cravat with the other. He turned abruptly and thundered: 'Mathews.' Mathews who was not two feet away flinched under the onslaught. Seeing this Bush lowered his volume. 'See to the salute,' he barked and thundered off to welcome Strangway, then stopped. 'And what are you doing there,' he said to Styles who was hopping about the deck making funny motions with his hands. 'Stop loitering man and get ready…. Go go!' And Styles bolted off.
By the time Strangway's boat had pulled along side most of the men had been woken and a decent ships complement had been turned out.
'Piper's salute,' bellowed Bush, then frowned. Styles, of all people, was nudging him from behind. 'Sir,' he whispered into Bush's ear.
'Not now Styles,' spat Bush, ignoring him as Strangway appeared over the side.
'Oh Christ,' exclaimed Styles in his ear. Then: 'Please don't flog me sir and no you are not my type.' Bush started as he felt hands round his waist as Styles grabbed his shirt and tucked it in and then rammed his hat onto his head just in time.
Bush was slightly surprised by his new captain. Strangway was a big man; with close set eyes and a stocky build. For all his noble breeding he looked like a prizefighter. This attribute must be a problem in the circles of nobility, where, as Bush imagined, everyone was elegant and beautiful. However as he was as rich as Creasus, he was an unstoppable force. He had heard that what ever Lord Strangway wanted he got and woe betide any man who got in his way.
Commodore Strangway walked up the line of officers. 'Which one of you is Bush?' he asked.
Bush resisted an urge to raise his hand. 'I am sir,' he said, batting away behind him at Styles who was trying to tie up his queue.
Disconcertingly Strangway walked up very close to Bush. Bush couldn't help swallowing nervously as the new captain eyed him up and down.
'You're Bush?' said Strangway as if disappointed in some way.
Bush didn't know how to respond to this. 'Er, yes sir. First Leftentant William Bush. Welcome aboard.'
Strangway said nothing. He just continued to look Bush up and down. Styles had done his best, but he still looked as if he had been dragged backwards through a hedge.
Eventually he turned and surveyed the men. They were also disheveled and sleepy and worse the wear for their night of revelry.
'Can't say much for you men Bush. A bunch of drunken layabouts.'
Bush hurried to explain. 'Well sir, they were enjoying a night off… as we had free time in port,' He trailed off.
'And who ordered this 'night off'?'
'I did sir,' answered Bush lamely.
Strangway looked at him. 'Did you also order the extra ration of rum they have so clearly enjoyed?'
'I see,' said Strangway as if this made everything clear. Bush awaited the worst. But then, curiously, Strangway tipped his hat condescendingly 'Very good Mr Bush… very good. Show me to my cabin please,' he said walking off leaving the bewildered Bush in his wake.
'We will head south into the colder waters where the pirates were last spotted and then sail back north round this way,' said Strangway trailing their route on the chart with his finger.
Bush looked with dismay at the route the Captain had chosen. They would be heading through some treacherous straights. He must have indicated his concern, for Strangway looked up at him.
'Do you have problem with my proposed plans, Mr Bush,' he said sharply.
Unwilling to voice his concerns in front of the other officers Bush merely shook his head.
After the other officers had left Bush loitered in the doorway. 'You have something to add, Mr Bush?'
Bush tentatively came forward a step, 'Yes sir – that route will take us through some very dangerous waters. Perhaps you are not familiar with some of the dangers involved,' he murmured cautiously.
But Strangway's response made him jump. 'Are you questioning me Mr Bush?' he bellowed. 'By God I have heard of your reputation, but this is unacceptable.'
Bush looked around in confusion, everyone on the ship must have heard that. It was not good for the officers, especially senior officers to ever be heard arguing. Mutinies had been caused by much less.
'My what sir? No sir,' he whispered placatingly. 'I just felt that you may not be familiar with the waters.'
Strangway's response only surprised him more. 'How dare you Mr Bush,' he thundered. 'Get out,'
Confused by the Captain's strange behaviour Bush nearly bolted out the door, but caught himself on the command deck when he found the other officers staring at him. Furious he jammed his hat on his head and strode past them, trying to ignore them, but well aware that he would be the subject of their gossip as soon as he was out of sight.
Life aboard the Hotspur under Commodore Strangway was relatively tolerable, except for one person: William Bush. For some reason he could do no right, but had an unlimited propensity to do wrong. Every thing that was not acceptable was invariably Bush's fault. From the first night Strangway seemed to take in instant dislike to him. It seemed every time he turned there was Strangway observing him with a disapproving eye, ready to punish him with a double watch.
Strangway had called the officers in for a briefing. Today the little man seemed very pleased with himself. 'There have been no sightings of the pirates recently in these waters so we shall move on without delay.'
Bush frowned down at the map, tired and careless, he opened his mouth without thinking. 'Sir, there are two islands to the east here. We could easily detour in, it would take no more than half a day and we could top up on supplies. We are growing very low,' he said pointing to the chart.
Strangway sighed. 'I know you must be bitter about not being left in command Mr Bush, but for the moment this is my ship and you will obey my orders. I feel it is important that we move on, so we move on,' he finished firmly.
Confused and embarrassed, by this sudden change in the topic, Bush could only murmur his agreement. Why did Strangway keep harking back to that? Yes, Bush was disappointed, but it was only for three months. He felt it entirely inappropriate for Strangway to keep bringing it up front of the other officers whenever Bush questioned him or offered advice.
It was filthy weather, down in the Southern Straights. God knows why Strangway wanted to take them through here. No self-respecting pirate would use this pass. The afternoon was dark and grey. A storm had come in and Bush did not like the signs. They were protected from the west winds for now, but if they kept on this heading they would find themselves in peril. They would be leeward to the waves, the sails would be useless and they would flounder. He had seen this before during that terrible night on the Gallant. At the moment the waves were high, but manageable and the rain came down steadily, that would change when they hit the unprotected straights beyond the headlands. He didn't want to, but he knew had had to talk to the Captain.
'Sir we must cut into the storm north north east.'
Strangway did not look at him. 'Why Mr Bush, we are heading south.'
'If we don't we'll get caught when we hit unprotected water and the westerly will stump us.'
'The westerly will not 'stump us' Mr Bush. Stop being a paranoid old woman.'
'But sir, when we come out of the shelter of that headland it will. We will be hit by the cross winds. We have to be on a tack that will able us to turn into the waves.'
Strangway rounded on him, his temper flaring. 'I am sick of your insolence Mr Bush. If you say 'but sir' to me one more time Mr Bush I shall have you tied to the mast and gagged.' he hissed. 'I will not tolerate insubordination – not even from you.'
Bush was furious. Damn these landlubber officers. 'There is no time for that now sir. We must sail the ship or we will all be in danger.'
'Keep this heading Mr Prowse,' yelled Strangway.
They were fast approaching the shadow of the headland. It was going to be the Gallant all over again. Who would they lose this time? Bush tried again. 'Damn it sir. Have you not studied the charts?'
Strangway said nothing, but looked steadily at him. Mr Travers, did you hear Mr Bush just swear at me?'
'We have no time for that now sir,' protested Bush. 'We will be in unprotected waters in under five minutes.' What was this idiot playing at? Bush wanted to cry with frustration.
Second Leftentant Travers came reluctantly forward. 'Aye sir.'
'What did he say,' he asked.
Travers looked apologetically at Bush. 'Damn sir.'
'Insubordination Mr Bush and an abuse against the Lord,' hissed Strangway.
'But sir...' said Bush in vain. But Strangway held up a hand.
'Did I not say what I would do to you if you questioned me again? Are you going to refuse a direct order?' Strangway smiled and keeping his eyes on Bush spoke again. 'Oh and Mr Prowse, set course north north east.'
Bush looked back at him in disbelief, too furious to speak. The bastard had deliberately goaded him. Been playing games with him while putting the ship in danger. He silently pulled off his hat and handed it to Orrock. And then with as much dignity as he could muster he made his way to the mast.
Strangway seemed to take great delight in Bush's humiliation. He stood watching from the fore deck. 'Make sure you tie him well,' he ordered. 'I'll have no favoritism on this ship.' Bush grunted as the ropes were pulled tight.
Later that night, as the rain lashed down and he shivered with the cold, Bush tried to make sense of it all. Why was he brunt of Strangway's wrath? There seemed no trace of the madness that had plagued Sawyer and no one was Strangway's target except Bush.
The next morning when Mathews cut him down Bush fell to the deck, his arms and legs aching with cramp and his hands numb. God it felt good to get that iron out of his mouth.
Mathews tried to help him up, but Bush waved him away and slowly stood upright, every muscle stiff and aching – although he did accept a drink of water for his parched throat and cracked lips.
The storm had abated and the morning was misty and overcast with a hint of snow.
'Are you all right sir?'
Bush smiled at Mathews' concern. 'I am looking forward to some dry clothes Mr Mathews,' he said rubbing the galled flesh around his wrists where the ropes had bit into them. He was actually about to say something complementary about Styles' coffee when a voice interrupted him.
'Right on time Mr Bush.' Both men turned at voice. Strangway was standing at the gangway, rugged up in a great coat. 'I do believe your watch starts now Mr Bush?' he said innocently.
Mathews looked aghast. Could he not see that Bush was soaked to the bone and near to dropping with fatigue and cold?
But Bush stubbornly met Strangway's gaze. 'Of course sir. My hat if you please Mr Mathews.'
Styles had been sent for some coffee, but there was no way they could get it too him. Strangway stayed on the command deck the entire time. Mathews and Styles hovered uncertainly out of site by the guns and worried.
By the end of the watch Bush was practically turning blue, his jacket was turning to ice and the other officers looked uncomfortably away as his teeth audibly chattered.
Eventually Six bells rang. 'With your permission sir?' he asked. Strangway nodded graciously and Bush took his leave with a tip of his hat. He made it all the way to the gangway before he collapsed.
'I'll poison him,' said Styles venomously.
'No you bloody well won't,' retorted Mathews. Then he added. 'Has he tasted your cooking?'
'No,' said Styles bitterly. 'He has his own steward. But I could still do it.'
'There will be no poisoning of anyone if you please gentlemen,' interrupted a muffled voice from Bush's hammock
Mathews and Styles shot to their feet. 'Sorry to be in here sir, but you weren't looking the best…' burbled Styles.
'And we thought we might just keep watch on you,' finished Mathews lamely.
An eye peeked out from under a blanket and looked at them. Then, Bush sat up in his hammock, gasped and fell back down. 'Who hit me?' he moaned.
'Er, do ye not remember what happened?' asked Mathews, rushing to his side.
It all came flooding back. Bush realized that someone had stripped him of his wet clothing and he was in his night shirt, wrapped up in all manner of blankets and bits of clothing and was wearing a rather grubby sailor's woolen beanie on his head. He lifted up a pea jacket from on top of him and looked at the two men quizzically.
'We had to get ye warm again sir… and the men wanted to pitch in,' said Mathews.
Styles held a cup of something under his nose.
'What is that?' Bush asked warily.
Styles pursed his lips. 'Coffee sir.' He smacked his lips together in an exaggerated way. 'Twill warms you.' Then he added apologetically. 'I made it.'
Bush took the proffered cup. He took a sip and withholding a grimace, smiled at Styles. 'Lovely.'
Suddenly there came a frantic rapping on the cabin door. The three men looked at each other in alarm.
'Who's there?' asked Bush.
'Mr Orrock sir,' came the reply.
Bush nodded and Mathews went to open the door while Styles hurriedly pulled the woolly cap off Bush's head.
Orrock came in panting. 'Mr Bush sir, it is nearly 12 bells. You are due on watch in only three minutes.'
Bush started. Damn those double watches. He would never make it in time. He sunk back down into his hammock. 'That man will be the death of me.' But Mathews was already riffling through his trunk. 'Come on sir, we can make it.'
With much haste the three men managed to dress Bush and as the last ship's bell sounded he was virtually thrown onto the quarterdeck.
Bush straightened his uniform and strode over to the rails. 'All well Mr Travers,' he said, trying to sound authoritative, well aware of Strangway peering from his window.
'Aye sir, 12 bells and all is ship shape. I'll leave it to you sir and bid you a goodnight.' Travers paused slightly as he passed Bush. 'By the way sir, your hat is on backwards.'
Weary from the unceasing weather and another double watch Bush made his way slowly down to the wardroom. He threaded his way gingerly along the gangway as the boat pitched and heaved. As usual Strangway had picked the worst route possible and the weather was so rough that half the men were down with a combination of brackish water and seasickness. Mr Garvin came towards him, looking a little green and gave him a wan smile as he passed.
Bush nodded at the boy. Morale was low. Among both the men and the officers. They were unsure of Strangway and concerned about the quarrel between the captain and the first officer, not entirely sure why the two men were at odds. He ran his hand over his face to wipe the rainwater off it. Bush felt the same way. He was not entirely sure why they were at odds.
Mr Orrock came up to him. 'Mr Bush sir, here are the new charts for the Captain.' Bush sighed. He was not looking forward to another 'discussion' with the Captain. With a sinking heart he knocked at the Captain's door.
'So what complaints do you have for me tonight Mr Bush.'
Bush sighed inwardly. The Captain appeared in fine form. Bush baiting was apparently the order of the day.
'Er, none sir. I have the new charts.'
'Well spread them out man.'
Hanging desperately onto the supports Bush tried to do as he was bid. 'Sir, I'm sorry. It is the weather. This storm.'
At that moment a huge wave must have come crashing into the Hotspur. Both Bush and Strangway were flung across the cabin as everything not tied down hurtled about the room.
Bush found himself under the table, wishing that he had taken Hornblower's advice and learned to swim at this rate he was going to need that skill soon. He shook his head and looked around. The Captain was lying at an unnatural angle on the floor. Oh god, he thought. Not another one. He crawled over to him.
'Sir,' he said stupidly. 'Are you all right?'
Strangway opened his eyes, took one look at him and bellowed. 'Mutiny'
'He struck me. Bush struck me.' By this time half the ships officers and several marines had crowded into the Captain's cabin. 'He tried to kill me.' The Captain, sporting a sensational black eye and a bruise on his forehead was being tended by the ship's surgeon.
'I did no such thing,' protested Bush.
'You saw him bending over me when you entered. Probably trying to finish me off. I have heard what happened on the Renown. How you and the others conspired to kill Captain Sawyer. You've heard how he crosses me at every turn.'
Bush looked around at the other officers in desperation. 'You know I would not…' But their faces were full of concern.
Strangway strode up to Bush. 'You will not do to me what you did to Sawyer.' He turned. 'I want this man under arrest,' said Strangway. 'Put him in the brig… and in irons.'
Only Orrock came to his defense. 'But sir.'
'Are you in league with him?' spat Strangway suspiciously.
Orrock was about to protest again when Bush shot the younger man a look and Orrock relented.
Straightening Bush allowed himself to be led away by the marines.
Six weeks later:
Now they were heading back into hotter climes the heat was making him delirious. What little air that came through the thick grill was hot and heavy and there was barely enough room to stretch out. For six weeks he had been imprisoned in the brig while the ship carried out its mission. Six weeks in this stinking hole.
Vanson – a thug and a thief, had always hated him and under the full approval of the new Captain was now enjoying his revenge. The amount of food he was receiving was not even half rations. Bush was slowly starving. Or rather, he would have been if not for his big lug of a guardian angel – Styles.
Somehow Styles managed to steal something for him every couple of days. He would hear a clumping then Styles' whiney 'sir… sir…' and food would be dropped down into the brig.
Then Styles made his mistake. Occasionally Bush was allowed on deck to wash and shave. He was aware he was filthy and he stank. The chains he wore only allowed him to wash his face and to his shame he found his hands shook as he shaved, but any change was a welcome respite from the unrelenting misery of the brig.
Sometimes Styles would brush against him and later he would find treats in his pockets – a bit of sausage, a flask of rum. Even some of his guards would look the other way. But today Styles had over reached himself. He had managed to get hold of half a loaf left over from the Captain's table. A terrible crime at the best of times, but an even worse one now. He was trying to shove a goodly chunk of the loaf into Bush's pocket when he felt a hand on his shoulder. Both men froze.
'What are you doing Styles,' asked the Captain.
Styles tried to brazen it out. 'Well sir I had this bread and I thought Mr Bush might like it, him not having much to eat and all.' It was meant to be an apology, but somehow Styles' anger at Bush's treatment had come through and Strangway picked up on it.
'So you don't think Mr Bush is being treated fairly?'
Mathews put his hand over his face. No, Styles, no!
'No sir I don't,' said Styles angrily.
'And you decided to steal some bread for him.'
At this point even Bush was hissing 'Styles no…'
'Some of my bread… is it not?'
It was then that Styles realized what he had just admitted to… and the potential consequences. His face paled.
Ignoring his guards Bush pushed Styles aside and stood in front of the Captain. 'It was me. I ordered him to do it… and he was scared, so he obeyed,' said Bush desperately; knowing that if he took the blame the consequences for him would be less.
Strangway looked at him. They both knew it was lie. Strangway folded his hands behind his back and smiled viciously. 'Very well then Mr Bush. If that is how you wish it. You will be the one punished.'
'On what charge?' asked Bush.
'Let's say attempting to incite mutiny.' Strangway smiled bitterly. 'Or if you prefer I can have you up on a charge of theft for which the punishment is the knotted cat. How does your back feel about that?'
Strangway waited, but Bush did nothing to taunt him. 'No… well then – mutiny it is. Mister Bush is to be flogged.'
Mathews wiped his hand across his mouth. 'But sir, he is an officer.'
'Mr Mathews, my rule on this ship is absolute. There is room enough for only one master and commander. Bush has just admitted to forcing the men to disobey my orders. He is lucky I don't just string him up on the nearest yard arm.'
Bush said nothing as the marines pulled him away back down to the brig. 'How many sir?' Mathews asked.
Strangway pondered for a moment. 'This is a serious matter, so I feel a harsh penalty should be imposed. Eight dozen.'
Mathews swallowed, but said nothing. He was just glad they were coming into shore soon and Mr Hornblower would be back. He would sort everything out.
Strangway spared Bush no humiliation. At six bells the next day the crew were assembled to witness his punishment.
'Do you have anything to say?' asked the Captain. Styles looked nervous, but Bush merely shook his head and Strangway pronounced punishment.
As he was being tied to the grating, Styles' face popped up. 'I'm sorry sir.'
Bush managed a small smile. 'It is not your fault Styles,' he paused. 'You are a good man. Thank you.'
Styles smiled back at him, but then he could hear Mathews yelling for Styles to stand clear. Bush lowered his head and gritted his teeth. 'But your coffee is still vile.'
Hornblower could not believe how glad he felt to see his ship. She may be small, but she was his, and he was proud to return to captain her once more. His only concern was that the men had taken to their interim captain. Hornblower ran a somewhat unorthodox ship – it worked – the men loved him for it, but he did not know how they would react to a straight down the line captain like commodore Strangway. He hoped it had been a happy marriage.
Unfortunately one look at the men after he had boarded told him things had not gone to plan.
The air was thick with tension. The crew was positively growling. There looked as if there was a mutiny brewing.
He didn't know what was wrong, but then in the middle of greeting Commodore Strangway he suddenly realized that something very important was missing. He looked around. Hornblower's heart plummeted and a feeling of dread washed over him. Not again. In a sort of daze he waved off the Commodore with a haphazard apology and walked up to his officers.
'Where is Mr Bush?' he asked Mr Orrock. Orrock did not reply, but looked sideways at Master Prowse.
Hornblower snorted. 'All right. I will ask Mr Prowse.' He turned to the master. 'Mr Prowse, where is Mr Bush,' he said slowly and dangerously. Prowse looked down at his feet and told him. Hornblower could not believe his ears. He turned to stare at Strangway, who started to say something, but Hornblower ignored him and stormed off.
'Oh my bloody 'effing god,' said Mathews under his breath.
'Pull him out,' bellowed Hornblower at the marines, his voice full of fury and venom.
He could not believe the state of his first officer. He was filthy and thin and looked half delirious, sweat beading on his brow. On his part, Bush just stood there, swaying slightly, unable to meet his gaze.
About to launch into a thousand questions, Hornblower stopped and his eyes narrowed. 'You are hurt,' he said.
'No sir,' Bush replied thickly, his mouth dry. 'It is nothing.'
But Hornblower did not believe him. Ignoring Bush's protests he lifted up Bush's shirt, his face set in anger as he saw the marks. 'You have been flogged,' he said tightly.
Bush could only lower his head and stare at the deck in shame. For an officer to be flogged was shame indeed.
'I have no idea what has been going on here, but…' Hornblower trailed off. Looking about him in disbelief, as if the answers would suddenly appear out of thin air. 'Get him some medical attention, a decent meal, and get him out of these bloody chains,' he barked. 'A bath and then…' Hornblower put his hand on Bush's shoulder and spoke more softly. 'Confine him to quarters.'
'I cannot imagine what came over the man. From the very first he was truculent and surly. Perhaps jealous that he had not been given command.'
Bush sat in the courtroom and watched as Strangway smiled at his old friend Admiral Garret. 'Even the stoutest of men can fall prey to the green eyed monster sirs.' He didn't stand a chance. In the court's eyes it was the word of good old Strangway versus some jumped up little commoner.
Admiral Garret nodded to himself and then shot Bush a suspicious look. He was aware of the threadbare state of his coat and of how battered his hat was and tried not to look truculent or surly.
Strangway had done a good job. Unable and afraid to stand up to the influence of Commodore Strangway, officer after officer reluctantly told of various incidents of discontent between the two officers. Bush realized now that all those arguments Strangway had instigated at the top of his lungs had made sure everyone on the ship was well aware the Captain and the first officer were not in agreement, even that the Captain feared for his command citing what had happened to Captain Sawyer. Although he and Hornblower had been cleared of all charges, there was the underlying perception that what had been done before could be done again.
'From the first night I came aboard I could see what sort of ship Bush was running. The crew were drunk as lords, the officers badly turned out, it was like a brothel in Portsmith.'
Strangway painted Bush as a lax and incompetent sailor who, resentful of Strangway's command and bitter at the introduction some real discipline, had decided to arrange 'another accident'. Strangway had even made sure he had gone to Second Leftenant Travers to voice his fears about Mr Bush.
These accusations hurt Bush, as he had always taken pride in his abilities. Hornblower had tried to stand up for his character, but was also tarred with the Retribution brush. Bush sighed and went back to starring at his weather beaten hat. Sure as God made little apples he was going to hang.
Bush frowned as he sat on his cell bunk and looked through his trunk. Tomorrow was the day of the verdict. Not much to show for a life at sea he thought. Not much to show for a life really. He picked up his hat and examined it. He really did need a new one.
He heard the clattering of the guard and looked up. Two cautious faces peered at him through the bars.
Oh not now, he thought. All though I suppose they may as well, as there may not be a later. 'All right gentlemen, come on in,' he said wearily.
Styles and Mathews gingerly came into the cell. 'We brought you your shirt back sir. Washed good as new,' said Mathews cheerily.
'And a bit of cheer,' added Styles, winking as he slipped something under the blanket.
'The trials going well sir, in it?' said Mathews uncertainly.
Bush said nothing, but merely pointed to the barred window where all three of them could see the gallows in the courtyard.
'No sir,' said Styles. 'Don't be like that. Mr Hornblower is doing all he can. He has even sent a letter to Admiral Pellew,' he added proudly.
Bush raised a hand to quiet him. 'Styles – you are well meaning, but an idiot.' He looked down at his trunk. 'Speaking of which.' He pulled his telescope out of the trunk and held it out to him.
Styles began to back off. 'Oh no sir, I couldn't. You'll be needing it again soon.'
Bush waggled the telescope at him. 'Well, just keep it safe for me then.'
Styles gently took the telescope in his hands. It was the most expensive thing Bush owned. It had been a present from his sisters when he had first made leftenant. It was a sturdy little brass number that had served him well and it had his initials engraved in the side.
'Yes sir, will do sir,' said Styles sadly.
Bush stood up. 'Right you two, get out of here.'
Mumbling encouraging words the two men made to leave. As they were going Bush grabbed Mathews as an aside. 'Make sure he doesn't lose it in a game of cards,' he said nodding at Styles.
The two men smiled grimly at each other. 'Take care of yourself Mr Bush, anything we can do' said Mathews and they shook hands. Bush turned then stopped. 'Actually Mathews, there is something you can do for me…'
After they had gone Bush lay down on the cot and stared at the ceiling for a long time.
Styles and Mathews walked slowly back to the ship.
Styles looked down at the telescope. 'He knows, don't he?'
Mathews sighed noisily. 'Aye, that he does.'
Hornblower bolted up to the courthouse. He spied Bush standing outside the court, flanked by three marines, waiting to be called for the final day of the trial. Already most of the gallery had filed in and only a few late spectators were hurrying past him, anxious to hear the verdict and sentence.
Bush was about to be shepherded in when Hornblower rushed up to him. 'Mr Bush,' he puffed. 'Here… Mathews told me.' Hornblower held out a beautiful new hat and smiled. He pulled off Bush's old battered one and replaced it with the new one. 'Every inch the perfect officer,' he said.
'Every inch the perfect officer,' repeated Bush bitterly as he held up his manacled hands and shook them so the chains rattled. 'They know I am going to hang.'
Hornblower grasped one of Bush's hands and held it tightly. 'Come now William. Have faith in yourself.'
But Bush said nothing, as he was lead into the courtroom to face judgment.
'This case is a serious one. This court is unwilling to bring a verdict of guilty on the charge of attempted mutiny as there appears doubt in this case, however the charge of striking a senior officer, and a captain at that, remains.'
The judge looked down at his notes. 'The sentence of this court is as follows. Leftenant Bush is to be stripped of his rank and is never permitted to hold any appointment in the British navy from this time on. Furthermore he is sentenced to 100 lashes and 10 years imprisonment… with hard labour.'
Bush was shocked. He had fully resigned himself to hanging. He was almost about to stand and ask what the bloody hell was going on, when the judge continued.
'Leftenant Bush should consider himself most fortunate. If not for the intervention and pleas on his behalf from Commodore Strangway he would be facing the gallows. Take him down.'
This Bush could not believe. After ruining him, now the man had tried to save him. He could only stare at the Commodore in disbelief as they pulled him away. What was this bloody bastard playing at?
The wheels of justice were swift. Bush watched dispassionately as his new hat was trampled into the dirt, the buttons ripped off his jacket and his sword snapped in front of him. They even took a knife and cut off his queue.
Then they lead him to the scaffold and flogged him.
Later that week the Commodore Strangway watched as the prison cart jolted past, carrying its sorry cargo to their destination. Hunched in his chains, his back aching, ex Leftenant William Bush did not notice Strangway watching him and nor did he see the smile on Strangway's face.
They took Bush to a new alien place filled with thick heavy walls that blotted out the world and men with hard eyes just itching to hurt him.
'What's your name?'
'That's William Bush sir.'
'William Bush sir.'
'Right, now forget it. From now on you are convict 163.'
They led him through endless corridors and thick iron doors that clanged and echoed. Eventually they stopped in front of a small door and Bush caught only a glimpse of a small dark interior before he was thrust inside and the door bolted shut behind him with a horrible finality.
The newly named convict 163 looked around him. The cell was small, dark and airless with only a tiny window set high up in the back wall, any view obscured by the close set bars. He reached out and found that he could touch both the walls at once. For a sailor like Bush who was used to endless horizons the closeness of the walls was terrifying. He sank down onto the lumpy straw filled mattress in one corner and tried to focus on the tiny patch of blue that crept through the bars. He was going to have to survive ten years in this place.
The welcoming committee came later that night. He knew they would. He looked up to see six guards crowding into the little cell. He was obviously tonight's sport. They were joking and laughing as they passed a bottle around. They were looking forward to taking down the officer a peg or two.
'On your feet convict,' yelled the sergeant as they hauled him up.
He stood in front of them, as they looked him over.
'They say he was an officer,' said a burly marine with a broken nose.
A smaller, wiry marine nodded. 'I heard he was a captain.'
Broken nose came up to him. 'Is that true 'sir',' he said mockingly. 'Were you a captain of a sailing ship then son?'
Bush said nothing. He knew they were going to beat him no matter what he said or did.
'Well look at that. He must be an officer. Obviously far too hoity to talk with the like of us,' said the sergeant as he took a swig from the bottle. 'Right lads, lets show him how we treat officers.'
After they had gone Bush crawled back to his mattress and tried to wipe the blood off his face with his blanket. He looked up at the window, hoping to see some stars, but there were none.
The next morning was no better:
Bush had picked up his broth and bread and was sitting on one of the low benches in the quadrangle, when a shadow fell over him.
'Give me your bread.'
Bush ignored him.
'Come on sailor boy. Give it over or I'll do you over.'
Bush looked around. All the other convicts were grinning, enjoying the show. This scenario was obviously a familiar one.
Bush sighed. He was going to have to fight. 'You are not taking my bread.' He stood up, well aware that he was a good foot shorter than the other convict and not in much condition after his trouncing last night.
Bush looked up into the man's eyes. 'No.'
The bigger convict turned round to his friends. 'It seems that sailor boy here doesn't quite realize how things work around here,' he joked. It was then that Bush sucker punched him in the stomach.
The big man went down, but grabbed Bush's shirt and took him with him. The two landed in the dirt in an ungainly heap, grappling for the upper hand. The convict tried to use his superior strength and size to pin Bush to the ground, but the smaller man kept wiggling out of his grip and darting in with the odd blow.
They got up and backed away warily from each other – more cautious of each other now. Both aware that this was a fight neither could lose, the bread crushed, forgotten, on the ground. The convict was big, but Bush was small and nimble and had been trained to fight.
The big man lunged in and his fist connected with a cut from the night before. Bush put his hand to his face and looked at the blood. Something changed inside of him. All the hatred and rage he had for Strangway poured out of him. He struck out and kicked the man square in the groin. He was so angry. Angry at being here. Angry at the injustice of it all. Angry that his new hat had been ruined. He hit the man again and again and again until his knucklebones cracked. He kept on hitting the man until he was down on the ground, his face a bloody pulp. Ten years for nothing. In the background he could hear someone screaming and only realized it was him after the guards had pulled him off the other man. It took six of them to pin him to the ground.
He spent the day strung up by his wrists as punishment, but the next morning no one asked him for his bread.
Time passed slowly in prison. His outburst during the fight had given him something of a reputation as a wild man and Bush did nothing to dissuade this, as it meant the other prisoners would leave him alone. He was, however, still fair game for the guards who never failed to make sure it was 'the captain' who fell under their blows.
163 worked on the chain gangs, fixing and making the roads in and around Kingston. Although it got him out of the prison where he was able to see the countryside, it was hard and brutal work – made more so by the irons the convicts wore, the long hours, meager rations and the vicious guards, every ready with their batons.
They were working on a section of the road just outside Kingston that had been made impassable by a mudslide. It was a filthy mass of boulders; uprooted trees and dark sticky mud that made the convicts' lives a misery as they worked.
An important looking carriage had come along and was now unable to pass. Its driver angrily waved at the guards.
'Get the road cleared,' he shouted at the marines.
The red coats only grinned at him. 'Doing the best we can,' one spat viciously. 'Look what we have to work with.'
The carriage door opened and an Admiral stepped out. He surveyed the scene. 'A shilling if you can get them to clear the road in under ten minutes,' he said to the marine in charge.
The guard smiled. 'Aye sir. I'll take that challenge.' And he waded into the convicts with his whip.
As the convicts laboured to clear the pass the others from the carriage joined the Admiral on the side of the road. Bush looked up. There, looking them over was Hornblower. He froze as Hornblower looked directly at him, but then – thankfully – his gaze past on. A blow startled him into action and he set once more to his task. Of course Hornblower hadn't recognized him, he realised. This filthy stinking convict was nothing the like First Leftenant Bush.
Four years passed without incident. Bush did his work, took his blows, kept his head down, and talked to no one. Then one day everything changed. The entire prison had been called out. Every man stood to attention in the quadrangle awaiting the new Commandant.
Bush's heart plummeted. It could not be true. Strangway. But it was – older, fatter and nasty as ever. Strangway looked around at the men, his seeming to alight on Bush.
'I look forward to commanding this prison. If you cannot be saved, you must be taught your place.' Then he smiled. Bush knew he was smiling at him. Life was about to get much worse.
Strangway would get bored and he would get drunk and then he would come after convict 163.
Bush would lie curled up in the corner of his miserable cell desperately hoping that tonight it would be his safe haven. That tonight Strangway would not send for him. That tonight it would be all right. But all too often he would hear the steps of the guards. 'Come on laddie,' they would say. 'You have a meeting with the governor.' And they would drag him away.
He even saw pity in the eyes of the guards. He knew what they called him. The Commandant's whipping boy. They probably thought he was fucking him too. However what Strangway did to him on those nights was more humiliating – more humiliating than the trial or being flogged.
Strangway had laid down the ground rules. 'You are a convict now Mister Bush.' Strangway liked to use his name in private. 'You have to do everything I say or simple as one two three, I will have you flogged, but then again I may have you flogged anyway. The only words I want to hear out of you when I beat you are 'yes sir, please sir, thank you sir'.'
Bush learned those words by heart.
Strangway would make him kneel, his face to the floor, his hands clenched in fear. He would feel the gentle tap of Strangway's cane… sometimes once, sometimes twice, sometimes three times, then he would bring it down hard on the convict's back.
He would try not to cry or whimper, knowing how Strangway enjoyed this, but after a while he couldn't help flinching at even the gentlest tap of the cane.
Corporal Barnes and Private Jones were carrying convict 163 back to his cell. 163 was unconscious and the two men were struggling.
'All right Jonesy. Let's have a breather,' said Barnes. They dumped their burden on the ground and settled down to have a smoke.
'What does he do to him in there?' asked Jones as they lit up their tobacco. 'Is it true – what they say – rum, sodomy and all that then?'
The other man said nothing, but merely reached down and lifted up the convict's shirt. His back was black and blue with bruises.
'Beats him senseless generally,' he said.
'What for?' asked Jones.
'Don't rightly know,' said Barnes philosophically. 'But I do know sommin. Don't cross old Strangway, that's for sure.'
Strangway had drunk more than usual tonight and had been in a vicious mood, but because of the drink Bush had come away relatively unscathed. Following the last order Strangway had been able to give Bush finished pulling off Strangway's boots and looked down at the unconscious man, drooling onto the sofa. I could kill him now, he thought. He looked around and saw a heavy candlestick. They would hang him, but it would be worth it.
He picked it up and walked over to stand over the Commodore. Then a feeling of revulsion welled up in him. No, he was an officer. He was not a murderer. No matter what this man did to him, he was not going to stoop to Strangway's level. He lowered the candlestick.
A hand shot out and grabbed his arm.
'You couldn't do it then?' Strangway wheezed, his eyes bright.
Bush shook his head. 'No,' he admitted.
Strangway laughed. 'One day William Bush… one day… ask me and I'll tell you.' He sat up and tightened his grip. 'But not today.'
Then he let Bush go and turned over. 'Remind me to have you flogged in the morning convict.'
'Yes sir, please sir, thank you sir,' whispered Bush quietly as he gently put the candlestick back and left the room.
As he lay recovering from his latest bout with the cat Bush decided he couldn't stand this. Every day the persecution got worse. He was desperate and ashamed – cringing before Strangway time after time. He resolved to escape. He had to get away before Strangway killed him.
The chance came two weeks later. After a long dinner entertaining the local Governor Strangway was plastered with alcohol, but as usual still wanted Bush for amusement.
Bush practically smiled as he was pushed in to stand before him. Strangway couldn't even stand let alone swing a stick. It didn't take long before the Commandant had fallen into a drunken stupor.
He stood watching Strangway for several minutes. They made an odd couple – the skinny ragged convict standing motionless watching the grotesque sight of the other, dressed in his finery, snoring in his seat.
He knew he would have to convince the guards that everything was usual. He prized the stick from Strangway's hand. He looked around. The sofa. He brought it down hard on the back – again and again. It made a horrible wet sound. Bush nearly choked. For so long that had been him. He looked at the stick and dropped it as if it were on fire. Suddenly afraid that Strangway had awoken, Bush turned, but the older man was still unconscious.
Bush lifted Strangway's keys gently from the table and padded off to the Commandant's wardrobe. He worked fast. He grabbed a jacket. He sniggered. The Commandant's best jacket. He'd better make sure he didn't get caught, he thought.
He quickly dressed himself in Strangway's clothes, stuffing a plainer jacket and a loaf of bread under his shirt to act as the Commandant's potbelly. He had planed well. With a liberal coating of flour in his hair and Strangway's hat pulled low over his face, bluster would get him through at this time of night.
There was one more thing to do. He turned Strangway over, bound the man's hands, gagged him, and then picked up his whisky bottle. This should buy him some time if Strangway woke up. Then he took a swig for courage and opened the door.
'Air,' he bellowed in his best imitation of Strangway. He kept hunched over and waved the whisky bottle. 'Don't worry about the convict – beat him unconscious. He won't wake for a while.' The soldiers laughed. 'Dismissed men, get him tomorrow.'
To his relief the Soldiers moved off. He made his way to the main gate. The men on duty were half asleep. They groggily sprang to attention. 'No, don't worry men. Just going for some air,' he said. Used to Strangway's unusual drunken ways they unlocked the small gate and he stepped through into the night.
He tottered a few steps down the road, singing quietly to himself then looked around. No one had suspected anything. He pulled off Strangway's coat and hat and with great relish threw them into a brackish pool of water by the side of the road. Then he ran.
His picture was all over the streets. The biggest manhunt Kingston had ever seen.
Breath pounding he rounded a corner and then came to a shuddering halt. Blast it, a dead end. He looked wildly around him and spying a small door set into one of the walls began to frantically kick at it. He couldn't let himself be captured. He pounded furiously at the wood, but it refused to yield. He hit the door again and again, only stopping when he heard the click of the rifles cocking behind him. Then he slumped face first against the little wooden door in despair.
He noted absently that his door had originally been painted red as he was grabbed by many hands and flung onto the street. The colour had faded a bit though he thought as they screamed at him, pinned him face down in the dirt and the soldiers' boots began to thud into him. The owner should really give it a lick of paint: make it ship shape he mused as a soldier stamped down hard, breaking his hand in three places.
He did not know how long it took to get back to the prison. For Bush it was an eternal nightmare of pain and humiliation. He was made to walk, pulled behind the soldiers by a rope tied tightly around his neck. With his hands bound behind him, his broken hand and his feet hobbled, it was all he could do to stay upright and not choke to death as the soldiers took turns in jerking his rope to try to make him fall. Once down he would he fair game and as he twisted futilely into a ball to avoid the blows he could hear the laughter of the crowds, enjoying this new form of entertainment.
The soldiers dragged him into the quadrangle of the prison, and threw him coughing and choking on the ground. He tried to get up, but a soldier pushed him back down into the dirt. It was then he noticed two shiny booted feet in front of him. Dread settling heavily in his stomach as he slowly raised his head to look up at their owner. He knew what he must have looked like, lying there at the man's feet. His snot and sweat and blood mingled with the dust and tears on his face. He put his head back down in the dirt, feeling the rough grit of the sand beneath his cheek. Was Strangway satisfied now?
'What are we going to do with you,' mused Strangway.
He peered down at the convict.
'Do you want a flogging 163?'
'Yes sir, please sir, thank you sir,' replied the convict mechanically, but did not move.
They flogged him of course. He was used to that. And he got two years on top of his sentence.
Strangway tapped his stick thoughtfully on Bush's back, smiling as the man involuntarily flinched. 'However I think we are going to have to think of something special for you 163.'
Strangway was a man of inventive means. They held Bush down, stuffed some wet sacking around his neck, and ignoring his screams, set to work welding an iron collar around his neck.
The millstone was one of the worst jobs in the entire prison. The convicts below had the easy part. All they had to do was add the barley and remove the wheat after it had been crushed.
The convicts up top had the hard part. They had to push the giant millstone around. It was an endless task for this activity provided bread for the whole prison and the giant wheel turned all day, except for the odd pause when the wheat was added or removed.
Normally two prisoners would push the giant wooden spokes around, but after his escape Strangway ordered that convict 163 would do it alone.
It took a few minutes of vicious flogging before Bush was able to shift the giant stone, his bare feet slipping in the dust, his chains clanking, but once it was moving he was able to keep it slowly going around – all day, every day… and in the evenings - there was Strangway.
Two years later:
'I need a new servant,' he said to the Corporal. 'See to it.'
The corporal had lined up a dozen prisoners for the new Commandant's inspection. This was rare job indeed. If a prisoner could wangle his way into the serving staff he was on easy street, but to work in the Commandant's service might lead to an early parole.
It was only the luckiest or the cleverest prisoners who could bribe their way into this selection. Each man glared at the other in the line, wanting desperately to get the post.
They stood at attention waiting for the Commandant. A fine bunch of schemers, rogues and tricksters, just waiting for an opportunity. And in the background, eyes fixed on the dirt, not even noticing the commotion, pushing his burden dolefully round and round was convict 163.
The corporal began to run through the prisoners' names and crimes, but it became clear that the Commandant was not pleased with what he was seeing. He moved off and was staring at the mill stone thoughtfully.
'Bring me that one,' he said pointing.
The corporal looked dumfounded. 'But sir?' he spluttered. Desperately trying to re route the Commandant's attention back to the line of chosen convicts who had paid their bribes and were now eyeing him angrily.
But the Commandant was not to be swayed. 'That one if you please.'
So concerned with making sure he kept placing one foot in front of the other as to avoid a blow, 163 didn't notice anything until a hand grabbed his collar and yanked him away from the mill. He was dragged across the courtyard and brought to stand in front of the new Commandant.
He knew there was one, but had not seen him arrive as he had been in solitary recovering from Strangway's last night of revelry, which had taken the form of a good two bottles of whisky and two canes broken across his back.
'Goodbye Mister Bush,' Strangway had slurred. 'I am going back home to my estate in England and you… well, you are going to stay here. What do you say to that?' he asked, lightly resting his cane on the kneeling man's back as a warning.'
'Yes sir, thank you sir,' said Bush quietly to the floor, although inwardly he felt elated. Strangway was going. There would be no more of these nights.
Strangway leaned forward and pushed Bush's head up with his hand. 'You are wondering why I don't just kill you, aren't you?'
Bush dared to look into the other man's eyes, but said nothing.
'No my friend,' said Strangway. 'That would be too easy.'
Bush desperately wanted to ask him why, but he knew that would only earn him a flogging.
'Far too easy,' muttered Strangway to himself.
Then he stood up and brought the cane down violently on the convict's back, splitting the cane. 'Well what do you know,' he said staring vacantly at the stick. 'I've broken another one.'
'Did that hurt 163?' he said peering drunkenly down at Bush.
'Yes sir, thank you sir. It did.'
The new Commandant eyed 163 up and down from his bare feet to his dirty face. 'I have watched you for a few weeks now. All day, every day you push that millstone around… and in those irons too,' he said pointing to the shackles.
'Sir,' interrupted the corporal. 'This man is incorrigible. Only fit for the lowliest of tasks.' But he was silenced by a look.
'What is your number convict?'
'Why do you wear that collar?'
'I tried to escape sir,' he whispered.
'Speak up man. What was that you said?'
'I escaped sir.'
The Commandant looked thoughtful. 'Did you really? How intriguing.'
'Have you ever killed a man?'
'In battle sir.'
'Oh a soldier were you… no a sailor I think.'
The Commandant turned to the corporal. 'He'll do,' said the Commandant. 'Clean him up and have him report to me.'
The guard escorting Bush knocked on the Commandant's door and ushered him in. He stood nervously in front of the desk. The Commandant was reading from a file.
'William Bush… late of His Majesty's Navy I see. And quite a record – both before and after.' He looked up. 'I hope I am not going to have to flog you quite as much as my predecessor? In fact it seems as if you are the most hardened criminal in the place,' he said mildly.
'Do you know why you are here 163?'
Bush shook his head. 'No sir.' He had been taken away, fitted out with a new uniform, told to scrub himself to within an inch of his life and had even been handed a comb to run through his hair.
'Ah. Well my name is Brigadier Rightbridge and you are my new batman. It is a cliché, but it is hard to get good staff, especially in a prison when all those corrupt buggers offer up is a selection of rogues and thieves who will drink my port and steal my silver. You won't drink my port and steal my silver will you 163?'
'No you won't will you Mr William Bush, late of Her Majesty's Navy. Unless you truly are the villain Strangway makes you out to be, which I doubt. Personally I always thought he was an odious little toad who cheated at bridge.' He stopped suddenly. 'You aren't going to repeat that to anyone, are you 163?'
Rightbridge laughed. 'Good, discretion. That is what I like in a servant.' Suddenly his face went serious. 'Tell me 163, do you like horses?'
It was then that Bush realized that Rightbridge was slightly peculiar.
'I can ride sir,' replied Bush.
'Can you now. That is a strange talent for a deck swabber. I knew I had picked a good 'un. I like to think of myself as a fair man, and if you behave yourself and work hard I will do right by you.' He stopped. 'However if you don't by god you will wish you had never been born. Remember – it is just as easy to put you back on the wheel,' he twiddled his forefinger in a circular motion. 'Round and round all day.'
'Right then, off you go and report to Delilah in the kitchen. She will fill you in on your duties and get you a square meal – you look as if you could do with one. Dismissed.'
He watched as 163 touched his hand to his forehead and left. Yes, he thought. He had made a good choice with this one. He had learned in the army that you always picked the one who was just surviving and you would be rewarded. The man with the collar would do very well.
Bush decided that Rightbridge was not just slightly peculiar, but very peculiar. The job of prison administrator was not a glamorous one. Apart from the occasional overnight foray into Kingston Rightbridge's only company were the few officers and their families. Unlike Strangway who had preferred to spend his evenings either alone or tormenting Bush, Rightbridge was a jovial sort of fellow who enjoyed company and would often host dinner parties. However in general the post was a lonely one and Rightbridge also got bored, but unlike Strangway who would get bored and beat him, Rightbridge would talk to him. Bush had never been a great conversationalist but this seemed to suit Rightbridge perfectly. He would prattle on endlessly, mostly about horses. Rightbridge had been in the Cavalry until an accident had forced him into administration.
Although both the army and navy shared joint charge for the prison, Rightbridge had a great dislike for the navy and would take great delight in finding the most insulting terms for sailors he could think of.
'Barnacle bashers', 'sea monkeys' and 'bathtub adventurers' were all terms he would love to bandy around in front of Bush, but Bush had been far too well trained by Strangway to rise to the bait.
To Bush's relief Rightbridge was not a sadist, but a kind man even underneath his bluster. Bush found this out when he first was ordered to polish the Brigadier's prized saddle. Bush was sitting at the kitchen table working hard at it when Rightbridge came across him. He took one look at the saddle and turned an alarming shade of puce 'Oh my God man,' he roared. 'Haven't you ever done a riding man's saddle before?' but stopped short when Bush flinched as if expecting a blow.
Rightbridge took a few steps backward. The man was absolutely terrified. God knows how they did things in the navy, he thought to himself. Damn fishmongers. He put his hand on the smaller man's shoulder. He remembered all those reports in the file from Strangway about 163's insubordination and how he taken great pains to beat them out of him. 'I'm not going to beat you lad,' he said gruffly. 'You just have to know how to polish a riding man's kit, that's all.'
Under the protection of the Commandant Bush was left alone by both the guards and the other prisoners and to Bush's surprise life became tolerable. He slept in a little alcove off the scullery; for the first time in years he wore no chains and was even allowed to read. As long as he kept the Brigadier's saddle polished and laughed at his jokes all was well. It was then a surprise when nearly a year later Rightbridge called Bush into his office and informed him he had a wife – a wife who would soon be joining them. He had never spoken of her and Bush had always thought the man a bachelor – more married to his love of horses than anything else.
'Arriving next week. Coming to join me in the colonies. Leaving dear old mummy in England.' Rightbridge snorted. 'Mummy indeed. That's Lady Charlesworth to you convict. Personally I wish someone would do the old bat in. Know any good murderers do you William?' Rightbridge huffed a bit at his own joke. 'That wasn't very funny was it,' he said. 'Anyway – do what you have to do to see she is looked after. We must meet her when she arrives.'
Bush did as he was bade and looked forward excitedly to the day Mrs Rightbridge would arrive. He had been into Kingston a few times with the Brigadier, but this was to be the first time in eight years he was to see the ocean.
Kingston Harbour was a seething mass of activity as Mrs Lydia Rightbridge and her maid Georgina approached it in their longboat. Mrs Rightbridge hailed from the same hunting stock as her husband and was a pleasant looking woman in her forties, tall and confident with the sort of assuredness and intelligence that money brings.
Her maid Georgina was not. She was small, squat, Scottish, very ugly and had the sort of pugnacious quality about her that endeared her greatly to her mistress and did not endear her at all to her master. Unfortunately, when Brigadier Rightbridge had married his wife, six prize thoroughbred horses and Georgina had come with the package.
'Oh my Madam. Look there are fuzzy wuzzies running around as bold as you please,' said Georgina in her lilting singsong accent as she observed the native porters unloading and loading goods on the pier. 'Are all the servants here fuzzy wuzzies?'
'I'm not sure they would approve of being called fuzzy wuzzies Georgina,' replied Mrs Rightbridge, slightly taken back by the exoticness of the scene before her.
'Do you think they eat people?' Asked Georgina and a sailor rowing the boat winked at her.
'Shush,' replied Mrs Rightbridge.
'Darling, lovely to see you,' said Brigadier Rightbridge as his wife stepped into the peer. 'Must dash.'
Used to his eccentric ways Lydia took this strange greeting in her stride and merely took hold of his ear between her forefinger and thumb to stop him from escaping.
'I have not seen you for nearly a year Thomas. I sincerely hope you are not going to leave me stranded on this pier or I shall have to slander your name in polite society,' she said smiling sweetly.
'No dear,' he said gently extracting his ear from her grip. 'My man will take care of you.' He rubbed his ear ruefully. 'He's the one with the collar. You can't miss him.'
'What?' asked his wife in surprise?
Rightbridge noticed Georgina. 'Are you still with her then Deirdre? Thought you'd left years ago,' he said sounding disappointed.
Georgina gave a surly little curtsey. 'Good to be seeing you again also sir,' she said making the sir sound like an insult. 'But it is Georgina sir.'
Rightbridge looked perplexed. 'Is it really… I could have sworn.' He suddenly seemed to remember his wife's question and turned back to her.
'Dark hair… iron collar around his neck – little tag on it… makes a tinkling noise when he moves. He'll take care of you. I've got to be off now dear,' he said giving her a peck on the cheek. 'Business in town… he is just over there, er somewhere,' he said waving his hands haphazardly about. 'See you at dinner.' And with that Rightbridge was off leaving his bewildered lady standing on the peer.
'Right,' she said uncertainly to her maid. 'Well I suppose now Georgina, stranded in deepest darkest Africa, we look for a fuzzy wuzzy with a collar round his neck and bone through his nose.'
A small cough came from behind her and she whirled around. Standing behind her was a perfectly ordinary Englishman. He fitted her husband's description perfectly. He was a slight man with bright blue eyes and wavy dark hair. He was also wearing an iron collar around his neck complete with a little round tag attached to it.
'By God,' she exclaimed taking him in. 'He wasn't joking. You really do have a bone through your nose.'
The man bowed stiffly. 'Convict 163 Ma'am… or William if you prefer.' He gestured to the waiting marines and the carriage up the hill. 'If you will follow me I will see to your maid and your luggage.'
As they followed him Georgina sidled up to her mistress. 'Ooo a convict, do you think he's a murderer?'
'Shush Georgina. It wouldn't be polite to ask,' she replied. 'We hardly know him.'
'At least he isn't a fuzzy wuzzy.'
As they rode up to the prison the two women pestered the convict with questions about Kingston and the society and the availability of dressmakers as he trotted along beside the carriage. Bush tried to answer each question, but had to admit his knowledge of women's tailoring was minimal.
'Why do you wear that collar William?' asked Mrs Rightbridge.
'I escaped Ma'am. I got an this, so that even if I did escape again everyone would instantly know I was a convict.'
Bush remembered the look of delight on Strangway's face when he had seen it. One side of the tag read 'convict 163' and the back side had his name and the initials PHMG. 'Property of Her Majesty's Government,' he laughed. 'Finally collared like the dog you are.' He had been thrashed soundly that night.
'But they still think you might run away,' she said indicating the manacles and chain, which bound him to the carriage.
Bush smiled ruefully and nodded at the two marines driving. 'They are not the trusting type.'
He smiled at Georgina. 'I could escape into the rainforest and live with the savages.'
Georgina's eyes widened at his words. 'Is this prison full of rogues then?'
Bush looked at her. 'Oh yes Miss Georgina,' he said seriously.
Georgina squirmed with excitement. 'And are they handsome rogues?'
'Shush Georgina,' said her mistress sternly. 'I would have thought you could sate your appetite with the red coats.'
Bush liked Mrs Rightbridge, but he began to get a suspicion that she also liked him:
'What are you doing William?'
Bush shot to his feet. 'Ah, reading Ma'am,' he said uncertainly.
Mrs Rightbridge looked surprised. 'You can read?' She absently took the book from him and examined it. 'I didn't think murderers could read.'
'I am not a murderer,' said Bush sullenly.
She looked up at him in surprise. 'Have I touched a nerve there William? Are you going to tell me your sad tale about how you were hardly done by and am innocent as a new born babe?'
She handed him back the book. 'The Tempest… This is one of mine. All the Brigadier's books revolve around horses.'
Bush paled. 'I'm sorry Ma'am. I did not know it was your book. I hope you don't think I was stealing it. I am allowed to read the Brigadier's and I didn't know.'
'So you are not a thief then either William?'
'I am a convict Ma'am and you are a lady. That is all that is important.'
She reached out and gently touched his collar. 'A strange one,' she said. And then she left leaving Bush with a strange sense of unease.
After that incident Bush tried to keep out of Mrs Rightbridge's way. He didn't want to tempt fate, but fate was out to tempt him.
He was working in the scullery when she found him. It was late, after dinner and he could tell she had been drinking.
'There you are William. I have been looking for you.'
He shot quickly to his feet. 'Ma'am,' he said cautiously.
She came forward and stood in front of him. 'You always look so serious William,' she said as she played with a curl of his hair that had fallen down over his forehead. He looked beautiful. He had been serving that night and was wearing an old shirt of the Brigadier's - too big on his slight frame, but starched and ironed to perfection.
He realized what she wanted. 'Oh no please Mrs Rightbridge,' he whispered.
She put a finger on his lips. 'Be quiet William.' He could do nothing as she unbuttoned his shirt and ran her hands across his chest. She could feel him trembling under her as she traced the line of the scar that ran across his ribcage. 'You have been hurt.'
'And old wound Ma'am.'
She pulled the shirt off his shoulders, let it drop to the floor and took a step back, admiring his body. 'As pleasing as I thought it would be.'
He stood stiffly to attention, his eyes fixed firmly on the ground. 'Please no,' he begged softly. She walked slowly around him, one hand trailing lightly over his skin, following the lines of the scars on his back.
'Such a hardened criminal William. Some would call you a brute.' She looked him in the eye. 'Yet you are so quiet and so gentle… strange,' she finished, her finger playing gently with the tag at his neck, making it tinkle softly.
'This isn't right…' He trailed off as he felt her hands at his waist. He closed his eyes. She slid her hand into the front of his trousers and his hands spasmed. He whimpered softly. 'Oh come now William. Don't be so afraid. The trick is just not to get caught,' she said.
'Yes it is my dear, isn't it,' said a voice from the doorway.
It could have been worse. Rightbridge was lenient. Bush was merely soundly flogged and sent back to work on the mill wheel.
Mrs Rightbridge sat in her dressing room and listened to the crack of the whip mixing with the man's cries. 'It is you I am angry with my dear,' said her husband. Rightbridge sighed. 'He was a very good batman.'
Convict 163 turned the mill wheel every day, day in, day out, for the last years of his imprisonment.
He looked down at the money. Fifteen shillings and forty pence. Not much to show for twelve years hard labour. He absently pushed the money into a pocket of the oversized coat they had given him and began to walk.
Then the shock hit him. He was free? He began to shake uncontrollably. His legs crumpled. He fell heavily into the dirt.
He stayed there a long time, not moving, not realizing time was passing, until one of the small doors opened and a warder came out and poked him with his baton.
'Get moving… get out of here,' yelled the warder as he prodded Bush.
Bush looked up at him uncomprehendingly.
'Go,' gestured the warder.
Bush got to his feet and turned to look up at the prison. A strange sensation came over him and he smiled grimly to himself. Then, like a chased hare, suddenly he bolted leaving the warder staring at him in shock, a comical look on his face.
Bush ran. He ran as fast as he could down the road to Kingston. His heart pounding with fear, that at any moment he would hear the shouts and the shots. But this time no one pursued him. Soon the prison was out of sight, but he kept running and running and running until he tripped and went sprawling and skidding into the dirt – a wild heaving mess. He lay in the dirt until his breathing had evened and just listened. All around him were the sounds of the country. He could hear the cry of the birds and the long grass by the side of the road whistling in the wind. Not a jangle of a key, not a cry or a blow, not a clink of a chain, nothing but the gentle sounds of nature. He rubbed his neck, finally free of its collar and accepted that he was free.
I am free, he thought to himself as he lazily looked up at the blue sky. From now on everything is going to be all right.
Two months later: Kingston.
Bush sat on a bench in the gardens despair running through him. He looked up at the church. God: where was he? He thought bitterly.
The high hopes he had entered Kingston with were long gone. He had been wrong. He was not free. Strangway's nightmare plagued him still. He had trudged through the streets of Kingston, searching for work. But his yellow parole slip turned him away at every door. He had the word 'convict' written all over him in large glowing letters. Although he longed to go to sea again he could not work as a sailor. Even though he had more sailing experience in his little finger than most merchant sea captains, no right minded captain would risk taking on a convict with no ticket.
One time he had tried to get work as a field worker. But they would not take him because he was white. Even the black workers had jeered at him and at that moment despair had washed over him. He could not even work in the lowliest of jobs. He was not even fit to be a field worker. For a moment he had contemplated walking back up to the prison and knocking on the gates. Then shivering, he had sunk down into the gutter and sobbed.
So now his money had run out and he found himself sitting in the public gardens next to the church wondering where the next meal was coming from. He put his head in his hands.
'Do you mind if I sit down,' said a voice from behind him.'
He looked up and grimaced. It was a man of the cloth. A preacher. He had no love for them. For fourteen years no man or god had answered his prayers. He remembered a time – forced to kneel, a baton choking his breath, arms twisted behind him, when he had been eyed by the prison Chaplin and declared in an instant an unsaveable sinner and incurable in God's eyes.
He glared at the newcomer, but the preacher apparently took no notice of his hostility and merely sat down beside him, placing a brown paper bag on his lap.
'I like to come here,' the preacher man said with a slight Scottish burr. He pulled out food from his bag, 'when I have some time.'
When this provoked no response he continued unabated. 'It reminds me of God'
This time Bush could not help himself. Although he was used to long periods where he had no one to talk to but the cockroaches, this had only made him realize that he did enjoy conversation. 'What does?' he asked.
The preacher turned to look at him and gestured with a free hand. 'Well all of this,' he said puzzled. 'All this beauty.'
Bush mulled on this a bit.
'Depends on how you define beauty doesn't it,' he eventually replied. 'I've never really particularly enjoyed the country, trees, leaves…' He trailed off.
The preacher stopped rummaging through his bag and nodded thoughtfully. 'Why, yes. I never thought of it as being a matter of perspective. Generally everyone defines beauty the same way – green fields, pretty women, blue skies. But you are right.' He pulled out a piece of bread. 'How do you define beauty? You do like pretty women don't you?'
Bush cocked his head at the preacher man, sure that he was having him on, but was forced to laugh. The first laugh in a long while. It had been so long since anyone had cared for his opinions. But the man was looking at him from behind his spectacles with a frown, perfectly serious.
'Well,' he said slowly. He closed his eyes, gave a serious frown of his own and remembered. 'When you stand on the prow of a ship and you feel the bitter sting of the wind and the water on your face.'
He looked again at the preacher, but he just looked steadily back at him, asking him to continue.
'And it hurts.'
'Hurts,' asked the man. 'How is that beautiful?'
Bush sighed. 'It just is,' he said expecting ridicule.
The preacher man just nodded to himself as if he had been told the meaning of life and said ah.
They sat together, not moving for a long while. Each man lost in his own thoughts. Then the preacher man turned to look at him. 'So why do you come here?' he asked slowly. 'I mean, if you don't enjoy God's creation?'
'I have nowhere else to go,' he replied simply. Then 'And I don't believe in god,' he added savagely and waited for the man's reaction.
The preacher man looked pained, but he nodded once more. 'No?' he asked.
When you are locked away in the dark, alone, afraid and waiting for the next time they will hurt you again, there is no god. Bush closed his eyes tightly against the pain. 'No,' he said firmly.
The other man said nothing and eventually Bush opened his eyes to find a sandwich being held under his nose. He stared at it. This was more food than he had eaten in two days.
He wanted to grab the sandwich and shove it down his throat as fast as he could, then beat the preacher man to the ground and take the rest. But even as he had those thoughts he felt bile rise in throat and the sweat on his forehead. No matter what they said. No matter what they did to him. No matter what they took. He was still an officer.
He stared resolutely ahead. 'No, thank you,' he said slowly. 'I am not hungry.'
The sandwich withdrew and silence ensued, but Bush could tell that the priest was still watching him.
'So why don't you think god exists?'
'I just do.'
'Are you an atheist?'
'Do you believe in yourself?'
'Yes.' But he knew that was lie. He had stopped believing in himself long ago.
'Do you like lamb?'
This threw Bush and he turned to the priest.
'Would you like to come to dinner tonight?' said the preacher.
Bush gestured at his appearance. 'But…? For all you know I could be a criminal.'
'True I suppose,' the man replied with a smile on his lips. 'However all I know is that you are a man who needs a bit of faith… and perhaps some of my sister's excellent roast lamb.'
Eventually, taken in by the preacher's ridiculous approach, Bush smiled.
'Henry Braithwaite,' said the man. Bush took the proffered hand but stopped. "Convict 163 sir" was on the tip of his tongue.
Not anymore. He took a breath. 'William Bush sir.'
They walked slowly through the lazy afternoon heat of Kingston to Braithwaite's home.
'There is something I ought to tell you.' Braithwaite trailed off, unsure as how to continue. 'Do you have a sister Mr Bush?'
The priest stopped in his tracks and rounded on him.
'Three,' he repeated in amazement. 'And I thought one was bad enough.'
They continued on their way.
'Well anyway. I'm afraid Margaret, my sister... my only sister… can be a little... abrupt.'
Then Bush found himself asking a very strange question. 'Is she pretty?'
Henry paused. 'Pretty… well I don't really know. She is my sister so…' He trailed off and waved his arms apologetically. 'There was that chap some years ago… it never came out… cad and a bounder sort of thing I believe.' He sucked a bit on his finger. 'But I suppose, on reflection you could call her pretty… and abrupt – mostly abrupt though.'
And then Henry beamed at him. 'But then again. I am biased.'
The reverend Henry Braithwaite sighed at his appearance as he examined himself in the mirror. He was not what those in society called a handsome man. He was short and comical looking and he needed glasses otherwise anything more than two feet in front of him was a confusing blur. But, as with all men of cloth, it is the unassuming ones that you have to watch out for.
Henry sighed again and, deciding he could put it off no longer, went to face the wrath of his sister.
He found her in the kitchen.
'Well,' he said hopefully, but she only scowled at him as she crashed the pots and pans together.
Then after a pause. 'He seems nice…'
It was then she rounded on him. 'That is the trouble with you Henry Braithwaite. You can't see more than two feet in front of you.'
'Well, not without my glasses,' he quipped, trying to lighten the mood. However this had no affect on Margaret.
'For gawd's sake Henry. He is a criminal. It is as plain as the nose on my face,' whispered Margaret viciously. 'Those marks on his wrist – if they aren't from irons I'm a two faced Chinaman's uncle.'
Her brother sighed at his sister's knack of mixing metaphors. 'I know Margaret. But did not the Lord say that even the lowliest are exalted in the light of God? Perhaps I am just a sentimentalist.'
'A sentimental old fool who will probably be murdered in his bed by morning.'
Henry said nothing and, as he knew she would, eventually Margaret gave in and picked up a tray.
'Well come on. He has probably stolen all the silver by now,' she said as she led him into the dining room.
'And is currently swinging from the chandeliers,' muttered Henry under his breath.
It turned out that Mr Bush had not been engaging in acts of debauchery, but sitting at his place at table like a statue, as if afraid that if he breathed too hard something might break.
'Please Mr Bush,' oiled Margaret. 'Have some bread.'
'Thank you Miss Margaret.'
As he reached for it with an uncertain hand the marks around his wrists plainly showed and he hurriedly snatched his arm back, adjusting his cuffs so that they were covered.
Margaret threw Henry a victorious glance, but Henry only narrowed his eyes.
Dinner was a slightly strained affair so it was in disbelief to two out of three of the participants when Henry announced that it was far too late and Mr Bush must stay the night. At this Mr Bush looked ashen and protested that their hospitality had already been more than generous and he could not impose in such a way. However Henry was not to be dissuaded and soon Mr Bush was led up to the little guest room.
Once alone Bush looked around the little room. He felt slightly ill from the meal and not a little dazed by the strange priest. He was unused to being in company. He had tried to take part in the conversation at dinner, but he found words heavy on his lips and many references went over his head. He had found himself shaking with fear when Miss Margaret asked him questions. He did not belong at polite table. He did not belong here.
Hanry fumbled in the darkness for his glasses. Something had awoken him and he had suspicion he knew what it was. He tiptoed out of his room and he saw a figure lurking on the landing.
He approached slowly from behind. The figure appeared to be listening at a door.
He reached out and touched it.
Margaret jumped three feet into the air.
'Oh my Lordie be. Henry, you scoundrel. You could have killed me. I am frightened enough as it is, what with the murderer and all.'
'Margaret,' he said slowly and quietly. 'You have no idea he is a murderer. Let the poor man and… and me,' he emphasized, 'sleep in peace. Otherwise you will be the one being murdered, by me.'
'But Henry, he'll murder us in our beds.'
'That is no excuse for fannying about on the landing Margaret.'
'Why don't we just check?'
'To see if he is still there.'
Henry snorted. 'What, do you think he has done a Jean Val Jean and made off with the candlesticks already. He looked pretty exhausted to me. Personally if I had to choose between a good nights sleep and a couple of candle holders I'd know what I would choose.'
But Margaret was wearing her devious face. 'Well then. If he is so fast asleep, there can be no harm in checking in on him, can there?'
Henry frowned. He hated when Margaret out logiced him. And as he knew he was not going to get any sleep until she was satisfied he acquiesced.
'All right. One tiny peek.'
They slowly crept up to the door and Margaret began to turn the handle. Why do I feel like a burglar in my own house, thought Henry, but as one they peeked through the gap in the door.
There was no one in the bed. Margaret put her hand to her mouth. 'Oh the silver,' she whispered.
Henry coughed quietly and pointed. There curled up in the corner, fully clothed, was their guest. They both moved in cautiously.
'Is he dead,' asked Margaret anxiously? 'Oh a dead body, in my house… to think.'
Henry eyed the man and put a finger to his lips. 'No, I don't think so.' He gently touched Mr Bush on the shoulder.
The effect was instantaneous. Bush sprang up, sending candles and shrieks everywhere.
When the candles had been relit and Margaret placated with a restorative brandy, Henry asked why had he been sleeping on the floor. When told by Mr Bush that he was afraid that he would dirty the sheets he had been firmly pushed into bed by Henry and told that breakfast was at seven. And then in a rather firmer voice had announced that everyone was now going back to bed and WOULD enjoy a good night's rest.
As Henry and Margaret were going back to their rooms he stopped her on the stair. 'Margaret,' he said with a sleepy yawn. 'Next time you wish to loiter on the landing, please do not wake me.'
The next morning she saw their guest standing uncertainly in the kitchen doorway. He had scrubbed up well, but his jacket was far too big and she noticed with distaste that his trousers were held up with string. Still hospitality was hospitality and after last night she felt ashamed.
'Don't be afraid, Mr Bush. Please come in and have some breakfast.' But he still didn't move.
'I'm sorry we woke you up last night. I don't know what we were thinking,' she said, flustered.
He kept his eyes on the floor, but she could hear the pain in his voice. 'No, it is all right. I understand. It is difficult having a stranger under your roof.'
She eyed him curiously, but said nothing.
Henry insisted that Mr Bush stay with them and to ease the man's conscience he offered him some work in the garden. Mr Bush set to work making himself useful and turned out to be a dab hand at fixing things both inside the house and out.
Even Margaret eventually came around to their new guest. They were cleaning up after dinner. Bush was helping Elsie and Margaret with the washing up. He was drying the silverware. He carefully bundled them up in a tea towel and put them in the side cupboard, locking the door and then handing Margaret the key with a small smile.
Margaret took the key and looked down at it. She suddenly felt ashamed of herself. Here was a man who had offered her nothing but kindness and she could not look past the scars on his wrists.
The next day Henry found Bush in the garden. He was puttering around with a wall. Although he was working in his shirtsleeves he was still sweating in the hot sun. Henry was amazed at William's ability to work tirelessly from morn to night. Bush pushed the rock he was working with into place and stepped back to admire the wall, smiling as Henry came up beside him. 'My god William, you truly are a marvel with your hands. This place is coming on a treat.' He pulled off his glasses and gazed myopically at a shrub. 'But how do you know so much about gardens and walls and things?' he asked, waving his free hand at Bush's handiwork.
Bush smiled bitterly as he thought back to his days on the chain gang. 'I have a bit of experience in landscaping.'
Henry noticed William's tone, but did not pursue it and the two men sat down in the grass with their backs to the wall, soaking up the Jamaican sunshine.
'Makes me a bit jealous of the heathens sometimes.'
'All this. I remember my old teachers back in wet dreary England saying how important it was that we come out here and save them from themselves. From what: beautiful weather, a rich fertile land… a paradise some might say. The only saving I do here really is helping people cope with the problems we brought with us. Perhaps we should be learning from them, instead of trying to teach them?'
Bush thought. 'So what you are saying is that God was already here?'
Henry turned to look at his friend and poked him with his glasses. 'As always William, you are far more perceptive than you look,' he said and, as he knew he would be, he was rewarded with one of William's rare smiles.
A shrill call from Margaret in the background interrupted the two men from their reverie.
'Ah, yes. Next week I am having a dinner party. Lots of high powered big wigs and society knobs. Sorry, old chap. Don't want to, but every so often I have to throw one of these little shindigs so that the good word gets back to the bishop.'
Immediately Bush's expression changed. Although he didn't move a muscle, he seemed to curl inwards. The smile in his eyes died.
'And you want me out of the way.'
Henry started. 'No, old chap. I want you there.' Henry realized he had hit upon a nerve. After an awkward pause he continued. 'Got to have a bit of decent company.' He got up and brushed himself off. He put on his glasses and peered anxiously down at Bush. 'You will come?'
Bush looked down at the ground, then back up at Henry. He seemed to come to some sort of decision. He stood up and clasped Henry's hand. 'Yes, Reverend. I would be delighted.'
Dinner was the nightmare Henry had predicted:
'Mangy curs, the lot of them,' said Admiral Jones. 'We should shoot them all and be done with it.'
'You forget,' said Commodore Rand as he waggled his fork in front of him. 'Although they are brutes, they work like oxen.'
'What do you think Mr Bush? Are all convicts brutes?'
Somehow the topic of conversation had gotten round to the penal system. Bush put down his napkin and smiled half heartedly at the drunken Jones. 'Well sir. Perhaps it is a matter of how you treat them?'
'Treat them sir?' bellowed Rand. 'The lash is all those animals understand.'
Henry was fussing over his wine, but he did not miss Bush's wince.
'Why just the other day I came across a chain gang,' interrupted Lady Darby. 'The way those animals eyed me.' She put a leathery hand on Margaret's arm and whispered conspiratorially in a husky voice. 'Lust, my dear, pure lust.'
Given Lady Darby's appearance - to which the words 'desiccated husk' tend to spring to mind, it was no wonder that Margaret merely rolled her eyes somewhat and asked if the party would care for desert.
Sometime later the party had dissolved. The drunken Lords and ladies had made their way back to their waiting carriages.
'Have you seen Mr Bush, Margaret,' asked Henry popping his head around the kitchen door. He was surprised. Normally Mr Bush was to be found after dinner helping the ladies. Henry would tease him that he was engaging in so called women's work, but Bush would merely smile and say it was a pleasure. Henry had a suspicion it was the women, rather than the work that made it enjoyable.
Margaret looked up from her washing. 'Not for a while dear.'
Henry found him in the garden, in his favourite spot, by the bench, overlooking the water – as usual not sitting on it, but standing by it. There was a beautiful full moon and the city and the bay were illuminated… the little lights of the boats moored in the harbour glittering like jewels.
He turned when Henry approached.
'Lovely party Henry,' he said.
Henry heaved himself onto the bench. 'Do not lie to me Mr Bush. I am too old for that sort of thing. That was a nightmare. A bunch of horrors – knocking off my best wine as if there was no tomorrow. No, that was a fair imitation of hell.' He pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his face. Then, aware of the nervousness of the other man. He waited curiously to see what was coming.
'I must leave,' said Bush suddenly.
'Oh come man. Yes they were bores, but isn't that a bit over the top.'
Bush did not reply. Instead he held out the small slip of yellow paper towards the priest. When he did not take it Bush let it fall on the man's lap.
'I am a convict,' he said.
Henry looked at the paper, but the reply took William by surprise. 'Is that all you are?'
Bush frowned, confused. 'What? Yes… no.' He stopped and looked away. 'I don't know anymore.'
Then he frowned. 'Why do you ask such questions anyway? It doesn't matter. I am a convict and always will be.'
'Why do you say that?' asked Henry.
Anger rushed over Bush. He reached down and grabbed Henry by his coat, shaking him. 'Why?' he hissed. 'Why do you ask me these questions?' Bush's eyes narrowed. 'I could slit your throat right now.'
Henry stared back at him, his grey eyes set. 'No you couldn't,' he said with absolute certainty.
The stalemate broken, Bush pushed Henry back down onto the seat. 'Damn you and damn your faith,' was all he said as he slumped down beside him.
The two men sat side by side, saying nothing.
Eventually Henry broke the silence. 'Only half my faith is in god you know,' he said conversationally.
Bush looked puzzled. 'Only half?'
'Well faith in God is trust. A trust you cannot see. I place the other half of my faith in men.'
'Why would you believe in men?' asked Bush.
'For me, when I place my trust in a man, I can see how he repays it, but his actions. And yes although I am surrounded by God, I am also surrounded by men. Are they not just as important? Isn't every man valued in some way?'
Bush said nothing and silence fell again.
After a while Bush bounded to his feet, fidgeting. 'I just wanted you to know. It was not right that you didn't know – after you had taken me in and all.'
'I knew already. From the first moment I saw you. As Margaret likes to say: it is as plain as the nose on her elbow.'
Bush looked down at his hands and saw the scars around his wrists. He curled his hand around one wrist as if covering it up would make it go away, but still the scars on the other were plainly visible.
'They hang you by your wrists you know,' he said quietly. Henry said nothing. This was the first time Bush had spoken of his time in prison. 'That's where I got the scars.' He looked back at Henry.
'The scars on my wrists match the ones on my back. I am a convict Henry. Please do not try to tell me otherwise. Convict 163.'
Henry smiled sadly and shook his head, disturbed by Bush's lack of faith in himself. 'No, to me you are William Bush. A man who takes solace, not in a bar, not in a brothel, but in a park – and who - on some level - must like trees, even if he claims otherwise, and that endears him to me…' He paused. 'Or perhaps I just had faith in you?'
Bush just stood there, his mouth open, overwhelmed. 'You are truly a strange man Henry,' he said at last.
Henry sighed. 'It has been said many a time… and generally by my sister.' He got up and put his hand on the smaller man's shoulder. 'Why don't we go in now, Mr William Bush?' And he started to lead him in, but Bush grabbed his arm.
'Henry,' he said urgently. 'Please don't tell Miss Margaret.' Then another thought struck him. 'She doesn't suspect does she.'
Henry widened his eyes in mock disbelief. 'Margaret? No she doesn't suspect a thing. Not a suspicious girl – not her nature,' he lied badly.
Fortunately William was too relieved to notice. 'Thank the Lord,' he said. 'I like her very much.'
'You are not taken with her, are you William?' asked Henry.
William's face drained of blood. 'No, not at all Henry. I would never even dream…' he stammered and actually backed away. 'I just would not want Miss Margaret to think badly of me.'
'I see,' said Henry.
'Oww, he looks just like a gentleman don't he Miss Margaret,' cooed Elsie.
Margaret gave Elsie a hard look. 'Thank you Elsie, that will be all.' Then just to be spiteful she added. 'And I think the bathrooms need a good going over with ammonia.
Elsie, far too used to Miss Margaret's ways, and having no intention at all of doing anything over with ammonia, merely rolled her eyes and winked at Bush. 'Pay no attention to her Mr Bush. She is just jealous he don't have a gentleman as handsome as you,' she said as she flounced out of the room.
He ran his hands through his short cropped hair and smiled shyly at her. She had to admit he did look very handsome in Henry's old suit. Far better than Henry had every looked in it. But then he never looked good in anything. Poor Henry.
'Well no one will refuse a smart gentlemen like you a job now,' said Margaret.
Bush sat down heavily at the kitchen table. 'Thanks to Henry's good word,' he said with a sad smile. 'If not for that I fear no one would take me.'
Margaret gently put her hand on his shoulder, then with her other thwaped him hard around the back of his head. 'William Bush: will you stop feeling sorry for yourself. There you are – a handsome man in a handsome suit… albeit a little short in the sleeves, but that is Henry's fault as he has stubby arms - not yours… and all you can do is feel sorry for yourself.'
He looked up at her like a little boy. 'Do you really think I am handsome?'
She touched his nose with her finger. 'No. I am just saying that to make you feel better.' Then she walked off, pretending to ignore him, but she couldn't help noticing that he was sitting there with a silly smile on his face.
Henry was in Kingston, down by the ports. It was a hot afternoon and he decided, that as Margaret would never know, he might just pop into the Port Side tavern for a cooling draft and then meet up with William for the walk home. Thanks to Henry's influence and shady contacts William was now working as a porter for Roland Lewis. He was not the most upstanding of men, but he had been willing to ignore the yellow parole slip and give William a job.
The tavern was generally a reputable establishment, but today it had been taken over by sailors. Henry remembered that three new English ships had pulled into the harbour two days ago and the harbour was bustling with men in jaunty blue and white uniforms organizing supplies, seeking the company of women or enjoying their furloughs. Although William had never spoken a word about his past, aside from his imprisonment, Henry had often wondered if he had been a sailor at one point. He would often use nautical terms and when Henry would find him gazing down into the harbour at the ocean he could see an urgent longing in his eyes.
Henry sat back with his ale, content to let the world revolve around him while he looked on as an interested spectator. He watched as Eliza from the Noon Street brothel discretely plied her trade with the sailors, inviting them to come around and sample her wares. One sailor, unused to Kingston's particularly fiery brand of white rum had already fallen asleep and was being eyed off by McCaverty the resident rogue until Henry coughed loudly and pointedly. McCaverty shot him a dirty look, but moved away. Everyone knew Henry Braithwaite in these parts. He spent a goodly time down here, making sure that everyone who wanted it received a bit of the Lord's solace and some of Henry's advice over a friendly drink or two.
Deciding that he better do his duty. Henry got up and went over to the group of sailors.
'By gum, a priest,' said one. 'I'm not that far gone am I?'
Henry smiled. 'I hope not. No, it's your young friend over there. He is a bit under the weather and will soon be robbed of everything – probably down to his underwear, if you leave him here. I just wondered if you knew him and could take him back to the ship.'
A thin wiry old sailor, with a leathery face looked over at the man and rubbed his hand across his stubble. 'Jenkins.' He smiled knowingly up at Henry. 'T'is always the young ones who get into trouble is it not Reverend? I suppose we could stick him on the next supply boat back.'
He turned to another seaman sitting at the window. 'Tanner,' he said pulling out a telescope and handing it over. 'Go take a look outside and see if a boat is in.'
Tanner, quite the worse for wear, stood up. 'Aye aye sir,' he said as he tried to salute dropping the glass on the table.
'Careful with that,' said the other sharply. 'Mr Bush will kill me if anything happens to that,' snatching the glass up and handing to the other sailor again. 'Now go.'
He smiled at Henry once more. 'Don't you worry sir, we'll get the lad back safe… and with his trousers.' But the reverend did not move. 'Anything else I can do for you sir,' he asked, puzzled.
Henry sat down opposite the sailor. 'It is just that now I heard you mention a Mr Bush. Is he some kind of sailor?'
The seaman said nothing, but Henry could see a look of suspicion come over his eyes. Henry continued. 'It is just that I too know of a man called Bush and I think that he might have been a sailor. Perhaps my friend and your Mr Bush are related somehow… brothers perhaps?'
'I do not know,' said the other man slowly. 'The glass were given to a friend of mine some years back just before its owner…' he hesitated… 'went away. He kept it safe for him and then when he were killed it passed it on to me to look after.
'William Bush,' said Henry. 'Was that the man's name? The man who owned the telescope.'
'Aye sir, that it was. Leftenant William Bush.'
'I think our two men might be one and the same. Yours was an officer and mine is a man who ties knots like a monkey and stares at the ocean. Something happened didn't it?'
'Has he told you?' asked the sailor.
Henry shook his head. 'He has not spoken of it. He will not speak of it. Was his crime so terrible that he can never forgive himself?'
The sailor sighed at the reverend. 'I don't know why he is giving himself such a hard time. He didn't commit no crime. This captain, Strangway, had it in for him. Hounded him till he were half sick with tiredness and exhaustion. Then said Mr Bush attacked him, tried to kill him.' Mathews took a swig of his ale and continued. 'Anyone who knew Mr Bush would tell you that is a damn lie. Mr Bush is the most dependable man I have ever seen. Values loyalty and duty over ambition. A man who has saved my life many a day. But of course Strangway was rich and powerful. We thought Mr Bush was going to hang, but he got off light – or so they said. I don't think having your reputation ruined and being locked up behind walls is light, but there you go, that's what they say.'
Margaret walked into the outhouse and stopped dead. Mr Bush was there, washing in the trough… but his back…
He turned at her gasp 'Miss Margaret. I am sorry. I didn't know you were there.' He hurriedly grabbed his shirt and tried to cover himself.
But she had seen: the scars on his back… so many scars, the line of white scars around his wrists, the single jagged line that ran across his ribcage.
He jittered, looking desperately around as if to find a way out. Then he looked at her, cringing and said one word:
She came forward and placed her hand on his shoulder. She felt him flinch at her touch.
'It is all right,' she whispered as she pulled his head to her breast. He surrendered to her embrace and she felt the tension melt out of him. She wondered how long it had been since someone had touched him like this, with out malice or violence.
After a while he pulled away and wiped his eyes with his sleeve. 'I'm sorry… I'm so sorry,' he said backing away and then he fled.
He sat alone in the far end of the garden, ashamed, hating himself, hating the cringing convict he had become to survive: kneeling, head bent, waiting for Strangway to beat him like a dog. What would Margaret think now she had seen his scars? Every time she looked at him she would see the miserable cringing convict groveling before his tormentor, begging, praying, that if somehow he was quiet enough, if somehow he was meek enough and took his blows without crying out, that Strangway would stop, would not have him flogged for his sport.
For the next few days Margaret tried to talk to Mr Bush, but he always eluded her. If she spied him at the end of the garden, by the time she got there he would be gone. Meals would come and go without any sign of him.
Henry told Margaret of his meeting with the sailor and showed her the telescope.
'Give him time,' her brother said one night as they sat at a table laid for three.
Margaret looked at him skeptically. 'Aye, Henry. I'll give him time all right.'
Being a wily woman Margaret knew that all men needed food. With this thought in mind she took up a position next to the pantry and waited.
When Bush came in it was a simple matter to reach out, grab one ear and twist it – hard.
'You haven't been avoiding me Mr Bush?' she asked innocently.
Bush could only gasp in pain.
'That's what I thought,' she said to herself thoughtfully. 'How would you like to take me round the garden for a stroll then?' she said giving his ear another sharp twist. He gave a little yelp.
'You would now? My, that is a very kind invitation. You truly are a gentleman,' she smirked, letting go of his ear and pushing him out into the garden.
They walked in silence for a while. William did not look at her, but kept his eyes firmly fixed on the ground.
Eventually he broke the silence. 'You saw them. I am scarred. I am branded.'
'Are we all not marked by our experiences? But in different ways,' she replied.
He scowled. 'You are as infuriating as your brother.'
'Oh – more so I hope,' she said with a small laugh.
They sat on the new bench William had made.
'I have something for you.' She pulled out the little telescope and held it out to him. William stared at it. He reached out and took it with trembling hands. It was his, right down to his initials on the side. A link to a life when he had been happy and free.
'Where did you get this?' he whispered.
'Henry met a sailor called Mathews. He said to tell you that your poor Mr Styles was killed in action two years ago but that he kept it safe for you.'
He turned the object over. It was still in beautiful condition, polished to perfection. He remembered the day he had given it away – remembered Styles's big stupid face – remembered that he thought he was going to hang – remembered the trial – remembered Hornblower saying what could happen in three months.
Margaret watched as William's face went from joy to sorrow in the space of an instant as the memories associated with the spyglass took him on a painful journey. He sat unmoving, staring down at the little telescope. She reached out and put her hand on his, feeling his big calloused hands as unmoving as stone under hers.
'Come back William. Come back to the present. Come back to the now… sitting in this lovely garden in the sunshine.'
Her words seemed to break the spell and he took a deep breath. 'With a lovely lady,' he added. 'Thank you for returning the glass.'
'T'is all right William you know. Not everyone in this world wants to hurt you. Some of us have other things they want to do to you on their minds you know.' She looked at him shyly. He was blushing bright pink.
He slowly held his trembling hands out to her. He gently touched her face… so carefully. That was one thing she loved about him. He was always so careful with her, as if he thought he might break her.
She looked down at him lying there. He was so scarred. From his calloused hands to his striped back. He was ashamed of them. But she knew that these scars were not the important ones. It were the scars in his mind that haunted and hurt him. They were the ones she hated. The ones she wanted to drive away.
'You are so beautiful,' he whispered.
And then they shagged like rabbits.
Oh – you want the sex scene do you? Well get knotted. I'm sorry, but what William and Margaret get up to in the privacy of their bedroom is up to them. Mind you some of it was… well let's just say I learned a thing or two. So you just go away and do something wholesome, like drive a train into a tunnel or fire a rocket or stick a carrot into a food processor.
'I must go to England and see a man. I have enough for my passage.'
'But why William? Is it not enough that all this unpleasantness is behind you now?'
He looked at her and shook his head. 'No Margaret. He said he would tell me and unless I know why I will never be free.'
She reached out and grasped his hand. 'And what then? Will you forgive him or kill him.'
Bush paused. 'I don't know,' he said truthfully.
She threw him a cold hard look. 'Well make sure you chose very carefully William Bush. I convict I will have for a husband. A murderer I will not.'
He looked up at the manor house. Just like its owner it was forbidding and intimidating. He felt his palms begin to sweat. His back itched, the lash never forgotten. But he had to know why this man had hated him so. He knew he looked like a vagabond. But he knew from long painful experience that Strangway would see him.
The servant at the door had sneered at him, but Bush had been insistent. At length he was led into a sumptuous drawing room and told to wait. Bush looked around him. The room was beautiful – full of leather bound books and deep rich tapestries. He walked over to one of the bookshelves, pulled a book off the shelf and examined it. It was Homer, and it looked as if it had never been read. Ironic, thought Bush, that a man like Strangway, could be surrounded by such learning and beauty and still be a brute. There were times in the little cell when he would have given all for a candle and a book such as this too read.
A voice jolted him out of his revelry: 'Good evening 163.'
He turned and automatically came to attention. Damn that man. He had no power over him now. He forced himself to relax, although he could still see his hands shaking.
'That's Lord Strangway to you convict.'
Bush clenched his fists. 'I am not a convict any more.' He made towards the old man, but Strangway pulled out a gun.
'Aren't you? I could have you horse whipped or just shoot you right now as a trespasser and no one would care,' he spat.
'Margaret would,' he thought to himself.
'Margaret,' questioned Strangway and Bush realized that he had said her name out loud.
He looked back coldly. 'My fiancé.'
Strangway laughed. 'Some whore you found in Kingston no doubt.'
Inwardly Bush screamed blue bloody murder, outwardly he merely looked down at his feet. 'She is the sister of the Reverend Henry Braithwaite,' he stated in his best sullen convict tone.
'That idiot.' Strangway looked amused. 'I remember the sister. I wouldn't have thought she was your type.' He got up and smiled in his face. 'You being a convict and all,' he spat.
Then he walked around Bush. 'Anyway. It doesn't matter. I am glad you came here. Finally now I can put an end to all this.'
Bush felt the cold steel of the gun at the back of his neck. 'On your knees.'
When Bush didn't move Strangway clubbed him across the back of the head with the gun. 'What do you say to me convict 163 when I beat you?'
His ears ringing and his head throbbing, Bush gritted his teeth. Although he hadn't said the words for years, they were still embedded in his heart. 'Yes sir, please sir, thank you sir.'
'There, I always knew you were trainable. Even the stupidest dog is trainable.' His expression hardened. 'Kneel.'
Bush knelt slowly on the carpet. He realized then, that he was going to die and that, for the first time in a long time, he didn't want to.
Leaving Bush prostate on the carpet Strangway went over and fixed himself a whiskey. 'I should beat you – once more, for old time's sake.'
Bush put his hands behind his back, hung his head, swallowed his pride and became the miserable cringing convict he so hated once more.
'Please sir,' he asked softly.
'Please sir, may I have a last request, sir.'
'What is it?'
'Sir, a question sir.' The question he had always wanted to ask.
'I just wanted to know… please sir, why sir?'
Strangway poured himself another drink and sat down heavily.
'I'd heard all about you and the glorious Mr Hornblower. Heroes of the high seas.' He looked down at Bush with glassy eyes. 'Was the glory really worth it Mr Bush? All those times you saved the day at the expense of your men.'
'Cannon fodder…' He took another drink. 'That is how Admiral Croydon once described them to me.'
Bewildered by Strangway's words Bush shook his head. What was the man on about? 'They were doing their duty. They knew the risks.'
'Did they,' rasped Strangway. 'What about the boys.' Tears formed on his drunken cheeks. 'They were all so young and eager.'
Bush wanted to comfort the man, but the gun held him back. 'Did you lose someone?' he asked.
Strangway looked up in amazement. 'Did I lose someone? You probably don't even remember him do you? Yes I bloody well lost someone. My son. And you don't even remember him.'
Bush was puzzled. 'I have never served with anyone by the name of Strangway, apart from yourself.'
'No.' Strangway smiled bitterly. 'He was my illegitimate son. The irony of fate you see. Because I was a noble and she a peasant it could never be. But I loved her you know.' His eyes narrowed. 'His name was Rogers.'
Even now Bush could recall that night as if it was yesterday. He remembered them all. The sail had come away again and the boy had been flung over the side, but had managed to catch hold of the railings. Bush was the closest and had tried so desperately to hang on to the boy, but his hands were slippery in the rain and the boy had been lost. Even now he felt the pain of seeing the boy slip into the water.
'Midshipman Samuel Rogers,' repeated Bush quietly.
'You remember him,' asked Strangway amazed.
This time it was Bush's turn to be angry. In spite of the gun the other man flinched as he spoke. 'Of course I bloody well remember him. I remember every single one of them.' He ran his hand over his upper lip. 'They were my responsibility. And sometimes I failed them.'
The gun was shaking now.
'Tell me how he died.'
Bush recounted the story of the night Midshipman Rogers died: with one small change.
'What were his last words?'
'Tell my father I was proud to follow in his footsteps.'
He didn't think that God, Henry's god or any god, would mind that little white lie.
'He was meant to be serving on my ship, where I could keep an eye on him. But he ended up on the Gallant. A stupid twist of fate.' Strangway began to weep silently to himself.
A stupid twist of fate, and one he had paid for dearly for nearly fourteen years – revenge for the death of a boy who could not swim. Strangway was a man mad with revenge. Captain Murton had died soon after and Strangway must have heard the tale of the boy's drowning and decided to lash out at the man he felt was responsible – Bush.
The two of them stayed as they were –one lost in his grief and the other kneeling penitently in front of him - for a long time.
Eventually Bush got up and looked down at the old man. Anger welled up in him. All the beatings and the misery and the despair: all for the death of a boy who could not swim.
He knew what he had to do.
Henry had blinked a few times and then hugged him warmly. 'The lost sheep returns,' he announced happily. 'And you are…' Henry looked him over, taking in his bedraggled appearance. 'Oh dear – you look as if you could do with a good meal. Come in dear fellow, come in. You must tell me about your adventures over a cup of tea. I have the very best Indian here. Mrs Radcliffe got it in last week...' Henry broke off as he realized that Bush was looking around nervously. 'Oh,' said Henry. 'Margaret… well.'
'Well what,' said Bush alarmed.
Henry gaped. 'Well I think she's in the garden… or she might be shopping. Anyway I am somewhat positive she is not here… I think.'
Bush smiled in relief.
'I'll try the garden,' he said.
He found her by the rose bushes. When he saw her his smile lit up from ear to ear. He approached softly.
'William Bush, if you are thinking of doing what I think you are doing – forget it now and come and kiss me like the lady I am.'
Sobered he came and stood in front of her, 'My lady,' he said as he took her hand.
'Git,' she said. Then she examined him closely. 'Did you find what you wanted in England?'
'Yes and no. But will you still have me. A poor man.'
'Not a convict any more?'
Bush smiled at her. 'No – not a convict any more.'
'But I am not to marry a pauper. Your fortunes have changed.'
'Why,' he asked.
'Do you not know?'
'About Lord Strangway.' Bush felt dread settling in his stomach. Would this man ever leave him? Had he somehow found a way to draw him back and keep him from Margaret? Everything went blurry and he found could not breathe. He resolved. If the man could reach him here, now, that he would finally succumb. He had had enough.
Margaret reached up and smoothed his hair. 'Why what is it William, you look like the devil himself on an off Sunday.'
He grasped her hands desperately. 'Oh Margaret. I am so sorry.' His heart felt as if it had burst.
'But William, is this not good news. He died, not even a month ago and you have been given a hefty sum in his will. You are now a rich man William.'
He saw her looking up at him with puzzled eyes as he tried to make sense of what she was saying.
'From Strangway?' he croaked.
'Aye,' she said innocently. 'The letter from his solicitors came just before you did. Apparently you made an impression on him somewhere along the line.
Still dazed he grabbed hold of her and then let go suddenly.
'Oh my, you are so fat,' he said stupidly.
Margaret's vicious wit came to the fore. 'Still the old charmer I see. Yes ye daft twat. I have been eating for two.'
He looked at her with incomprehension.
'Oh fer Christ sake la. Work it out man.'
He looked down at her.
'Oh Christ we better have the wedding soon!'
She held him at arms length. 'William bloody Bush – That we will as it was you that got me into this mess in the first place, what with your blue eyes and your silly lopsided smile. Sometimes I don't know what I see in you.'
After she had gone to sleep beside him he stroked her hair and said to himself. 'Aye lass, I don't know what you see in me either. But maybe one day we can build a boat and sail away and live happily ever after… the way all good adventure stories are meant to end.'
And they did.
After Bush had left Strangway finished writing, laid the pen down, sealed the document and made sure it was sent on its way. Now it was all set right. Now perhaps both of them could have some peace.
Then he took a swallow of his whiskey and pulled the trigger.