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Chapter One:
The Cause

She must die, else she'll betray more men.
-Shakespeare's "Othello"

Marine 2nd Lieutenant Ralph Clarke watched carefully as Mary Bryant sat at the water's edge, her baby, Emanuel, in her bonnet, and four-year-old Charlotte sitting beside her. He had watched them sleep the night before and had followed them to this place, wondering and waiting. What would Mary do now that she was alone?

Charlotte looked tired and paler than when Clarke had last seen her in New South Wales. In his half-mad state, this small observation seemed as prevalent to his ever-perceptive eye as Mary's clear desperation. After all, a child living in the house of a Dutch governor should be plump and rosy.

Mary looked exhausted, but even now Clarke supposed the gears were ever turning in that cunning mind of hers. When would she run out of tricks?

Charlotte got up and walked to the stream. The lieutenant felt a lump tighten his throat as he watched her little hands cup the water and raise it to her lips. Good God, Mary! Don't you know it could poison her?

As if she heard his silent reprimand, Mary jolted from her reverie and rushed to stop the child.

Watching her mothering hands caress her daughter sent Clarke's mind back to that short period with her in New South Wales, when she and the children shared his house, his meals. When Charlotte would sit on the floor, playing with the doll he had given her and Mary would kiss her head in passing. He never couldn't help but stop whatever he had been doing to observe the scene. Unconsciously, he would smile, assured that he was now their protector and provider. That what he was doing was right.

No, he told himself, it was all a lie. They were never yours.

Then, just as quickly as his heart had softened at the memory, his throat thickened at the thought of how Mary had betrayed him. How she had completely and utterly broken his heart in leaving him, in stealing away his happiness. How she had made him a fool.

Smirking, he considered how easy it would be for him to raise his pistol and blow her scheming mind out then and there. She had no idea that he was there, in perfect range with the perfect opportunity. It would be too easy. But, no, he couldn't; Charlotte was there.

Whatever he felt and whatever she did, Clarke could never bring himself to deny that Mary's children were as dear to him as if they were his own. He had convinced himself of as much, at least. In any case, he could not willingly expose Charlotte to the horrors of death, or deprive her of the only thing she had left in the world.

It was Charlotte who decided the fate of her mother in that moment; Charlotte who had decided his fate.

Taking a deep breath to steel his resolve, Clarke stepped out of his foliar hiding place and onto the sandy river-bank.

"Mary," he said evenly, making his presence known.

Mary Bryant jumped and stared at him in wide-eyed fright, too stunned to move, or even to breathe as he drew near her.

He couldn't stomach it when she looked at him that way. It seemed so strange that less than a moment ago he had wanted to murder her and now he couldn't endure to have her gaze at him in fear, so he turned his eyes to Charlotte as she clung to her mother's skirts.

"I had the choice of two ships to bring me home," he said, his voice sounding broken and defeated to his own ears. "I chose this passage because I had to know." He looked back into her crystalline eyes, "I've thought of nothing but you. I've never been so happy with-" He stopped himself from saying Alicia's name. It seemed pointless now, as though he had never married her, as though she were nothing more than a past face. "When you came to me with the children and asked for my help –Such a short time we had together."

"You were so," Mary's voice seemed to break a little as she attempted to regain use of it, "so good to us." She paused once more before making her final admission: "I hated deceiving you."

Clarke looked her directly in the eye, willing himself to find whatever plan was turning through her head. He caught it; she wanted him to rescue her, to free her and he would, but not in the way she imagined.

"I need to get my children away from here," Mary continued, slowly approaching him. "Can you help us?"

"If by here, you mean a life of sin, of running and hiding, then my answer is: yes, I will help you," Clarke replied, steeling himself against the sweetness of her breath upon his face, her warmth as she stood so close to him.

In an instant, Mary's face hardened and she made to wretch herself away from him, but he caught her arms and held her fast.

"You have a choice, Mary," he told her, unfazed by her struggles. "You can go back to England and to the gallows-," Clarke seized her more firmly, willing her to be still, to look into his face long enough to understand him. "Or you and your children can stay with me."

Mary stared hard into his green eyes, trying to bore through them and penetrate whatever ruse or lie masked them, but as always there was none there; as always, Ralph Clarke spoke with complete sincerity and integrity.

"What about Will?" she seethed, fixing upon the one hole she could find in all his Christian charity. "What about my husband?"

Clarke had once thought he would find the greatest satisfaction, ethereal elation, and self-fulfilling justification when he told this story to Mary Bryant, the woman who had lied to him, the woman who had seduced him. Now he could barely choke back the shame and it made him want to slap her, want to smother the life out of her, and want to fall at her feet in tears.

Be thus when thou art dead and I will kill thee and love the after. Is that not what Othello had said?

He roughly took hold of her pretty face, bringing it inches from his.

"Wilfulness is the root of all sin," he hissed. "Each of us has a daily battle to rein ourselves in. William Bryant failed his test."

The instant those words fell from his mouth, he watched as Mary's eyes went blank. For a moment, it seemed to him that she would fall over dead in his arms. Pain resonated from them, pain he couldn't begin to fathom, pain he couldn't help but absorb as he watched her face turn ashen.

"You bastard!" she shrieked, wailing her thin arms, trying to strike him, to murder him, to rip him apart with her bare hands. Tears blinded her and fever encompassed her as she buffeted him. "You bastard!"

Clarke said nothing, but held on firmly, preventing her from injuring herself, helping her to her knees gently. He didn't shake her, didn't fight back, or strike her as he thought he would. He just remained beside her and when her struggles exhausted themselves into sobs he cradled her against his breast, feeling her hot tears scald him even through his waistcoat.

"Mary," he breathed at length, when he thought her subdued enough. "What will your children do without you? I'm the only one who can protect you now. I'm all you have left in the world. –Hate me all you want. I know you felt nothing for me. I know who you are, Mary Bryant, and I will protect you if you will stay with me. I will forgive your sins against me and I will keep you and your children from harm, I swear it. All you have to do is stay. This is your only chance at life now."

Mary pulled away from him and stared up into his face, determined to spit in it and damn him to hell when she heard Emanuel crying in his basket. For a moment, she just turned and looked toward her son, imagining what would become of him without her. No doubt, he'd end up back on a penal colony in Australia, trapped in the life she had tried to save him from.

Clarke couldn't keep his face from relaxing into a look of safe assurance; he knew that Mary had made her choice. She had chosen him.

His lips curled into a half-smile as he felt his old self return to him.

"He sounds hungry," he said, surprising himself by the warmth he heard in his own voice.

Silently, Mary crawled over to the basket and sat down to take Emanuel in her arms, lowering the shoulder of her dress shamelessly to nurse him.

Clarke was intimately acquainted with every curve of Mary Bryant's body, but the gentleman in him, his scrupled upbringing, made him turn away from the sight.

"Charlotte," he said, kindly. "Do you remember me?"

She nodded slowly.

"Come here, child," he coaxed, extending his hand and beckoning her to him. "It's alright."

Clarke prepared himself for the girl to shrink away from him. She was much like a bird that would fly away from strangers. He had had to be very gentle and patient during those weeks when she lived under his roof. The first time he had reached to her, she had pulled away from him in fear and even on the last day, she had only let him come near enough to sit at the end of the table she while she ate.

To his surprise, Charlotte walked straight up to him and rested her tiny head against his chest. Sighing a little, he enfolded her in his arms as gently as he could for fear he might break her. Little did this angel know she was the sole reason her mother now lived. He could feel Mary's eyes on him from across the way and could only assume that she was hated him for what he had done to her.
He almost laughed aloud. She had absolutely no idea what he was doing for her, what it cost him to forgive her. It would have been so much easier to just ferry her back to England, to return to his old life and watch her swing, but for some strange reason, he couldn't bear the thought of it. The revenge he had wanted for so very long melted away when he saw her again. Separated from her, living with the humiliation she had left him made it so easy to hate her, made it so easy for him to want to do anything he could to hurt her as deeply as she hurt him. But here, holding her child, listening to her coo her babe, all his thoughts of vengeance justice melted away into one thing:

He loved Mary Bryant.