Charlotte stared at the tall ships before her. She had never been this near such large structures in all her life. And how they moved as they rounded the point! Pitching and lolling, white sails unfurled – the sea itself like a giant beast beneath them. That was from a distance. As Charlotte drew nearer to one of the noble ships moored portside, the groans and stench of a thousand suffering souls wafted from it like a great cloud. The noise and smell enveloped her, removing the romanticism with which she had first beheld the ships rounding the harbour, like a sharp slap from a hard hand.
The constable, by contrast, was delighted. Lincolnshire had its share of convicts sentenced to transportation, that was true, but not nearly enough to bring him to this lusty city as much as he desired. Plymouth was a dirty town – but a town where one could find anything and anyone one wanted. It was a town on the edge – between home and the rest of the world. But there was another reason for being particularly appreciative of this trip: this green girl was having her eyes opened to the life which would be hers and watching her face as the full reality of the horror which awaited her sank in, was a rare pleasure and one that required his full attention.
And so it was, that Charlotte, turning in her wagon gaol to address a question to the constable on horseback behind her, found to her surprise that he was instead, riding beside her, hardly paying any attention at all to what was ahead, so intently was he gazing at her face. A smile played on his lips and at her look of surprised astonishment, the constable's smile widened to reveal a row of yellowing and decaying teeth. "How does her royal highness find her future accommodations? To her liking? Not to worry duchess, I'm sure they'll perfume your rooms for you, eh?"
If Charlotte had later to pinpoint the moment when she made the decision, it was then – right there. She would not give this man the satisfaction of seeing her dissemble into a shrieking, shaking, terrified mess as indeed, many of the other women prisoners around her were doing. No, she would pretend she was boarding the royal yacht of King George III himself, as a Lady, (nay, a Queen). Interiorly, Charlotte felt the tremor of the dark unknown, but exteriorly, she betrayed no hint of emotion. She calmly smiled at the constable, eyes level with his, before dismissing him with a curt nod of her head. The constable laughed and unchained her manacles. Her wrists and ankles were bruised and bleeding, but she paid them no heed.
The dock was crowded with all manner of people - naval men, sailors, convicts and their families and traders delivering groceries and provisions. The cacophony of noise, smells and activity assaulted Charlotte's senses. She had no impression of the place she was in as a whole, but rather felt herself drowning like an ant, in a sea of sensory minutiae – the sharp, bitter taste of lime in her mouth as they passed crates of the green fruit on the dock; the squawking of seagulls which dropped from the sky with remarkable precision on their quarry, before fighting each other for bits of crumbs or debris that had fallen on the ground; the heart wrenching cries of mothers being separated from children, children screaming their goodbyes to fathers and lovers weeping inconsolably as they clasped each other for the last time. Charlotte felt as if she took all of it in and none of it. She was overwhelmed and yet numbed by it all at once.
The constable at least, seemed indifferent to his surroundings. He purposefully marched Charlotte up to two young royal naval men in uniform. Charlotte could tell from the copious perspiration which they mopped from their brows and their generally harried demeanour, that despite the early hour of the morning, they had been standing in the summer heat processing prisoners for some time. The junior seaman stood bent over a makeshift lectern, reading from a sheaf of official looking papers. The more senior looking officer, slouched lazily against a wooden crate. Looking cursorily up at her from the documents in front of him, the junior seaman barked, "Charlotte Ann Caprice?" Taking a more appreciative and lingering look at her, the senior officer drawled, "Is that your full name darling?"
"Yes, it is" she responded quietly.
Handing the constable a receipt acknowledging delivery of the prisoner into the care of His Royal Highness' Navy, the junior seaman uttered what clearly had become a well-rehearsed statement through-out the morning, "On behalf of His Royal Highness, you are relieved of your prisoner Constable." And then to a passing sailor, "Seaman White, escort this prisoner to below decks for lice removal and treatment."
To the surprise of all, the constable did not relinquish his prisoner, but rather grasped Charlotte's arm all the more firmly. Smiling slyly at the seamen, the constable said, "If you don't mind sirs, I have taken on the careful supervision of this prisoner as my special duty. May I suggest that the prisoner be deloused here, so that, on behalf of the Lincolnshire Constabulary, we may be reassured in the discharge of our duty, that our prisoner has been entirely and properly processed?" The constable winked conspiratorially at the naval men, a disgusting grin distorting his features. Charlotte couldn't help but gasp at the constable's audacious cruelty. 'So this', thought Charlotte, 'is to be his parting assault on my dignity. To see me publicly disrobed, naked and deloused with kerosene and lightwood oil.'
The senior officer in charge leered lasciviously at her body. The seamen around him paused in their activities also, as if sensing the rising excitement and watched expectantly. A crowd began to collect around the original quartet, in turn attracting attention from even further afield. "Come on darling!" called out a sailor from the deck of the nearest ship, "Don't be shy!" The noise and catcalls from all around her suddenly became deafening. Even the convicts, male and female joined the throng. In the centre of it all, she felt infinitesimally small, like a crumb that a thousand cawing crows were trying to peck.
The officer in charge pulled roughly at the cotton sleeves of her dress and a huge cheer erupted as they ripped, revealing her bare arms. His assisting seaman grabbed at the bodice of her dress and it came apart in his hands leaving her corset petticoat her only protection against their devouring eyes. The crowd of sailors, naval men and the convicts in their charge, now converged in a circle around her, pressing ever more closely in.
Amidst the din, a single smoking shot was fired. It came from the direction of the ship. The crowd parted and all united like a single animal in turning its attention from the young, half-naked girl, to the figure of a man in uniform striding out until he was before them all. There was no mistaking the identity of the man. At his approach, one name had been uttered in frantic and frightened whispers by soldier, sailor and convict alike – "Cap'n Bennett!"
AUTHOR'S NOTE: If you have enjoyed reading Charlotte's story, would you consider letting me know by commenting or simply voting? Thank you for reading her story so far.
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Charlotte TrueHistorical Fiction
Inspired by the non-fictional, historical lives of Sir Joseph Banks, Nicolas Baudin, Captain William Bligh, Matthew Flinders and John Macarthur, this 'coming of age' story is set at the dawn of the nineteenth century. It describes Charlotte, an Eng...