Chapter 16: Summoned

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Shanks was nothing if not efficient, though try as she might to surveil her, Charlotte had no idea how she managed to negotiate with the powers above decks. During the night, Lizzie went into labour, though the child was not supposed to come for another month. Dr Cooper who had been tardy in his ministrations of the sick amongst them of late, seemed to appear almost instantly Shanks raised the alarm for him. The doctor took great notice of Charlotte as he weaved his way to the pregnant woman's side in the hold. For her part, Charlotte looked away shamefully, as soon as his eyes connected with hers. She was filled with revulsion by her own insipid reaction as she felt the colour spreading over her face. She wanted to smack his face with an iron fist, not shrink away like some shy little girl.

Dr Cooper called for the attending naval men, who covered their noses with their hands as they entered the hold to ward off the stench of the enclosed women. He remonstrated with the men for their rough handling of the pregnant woman, but Charlotte noticed him looking at her as he said it – as if more for her benefit, than for poor Lizzie's. He paused by the hatch and lowered his head to speak with Shanks. Charlotte felt her fate locked into place as the pair whispered conspiratorially in the dark.

The next morning they heard the news that the baby had survived but poor Lizzie had not. A female convict who had had her baby born on the prison hulk before they left, but whose baby had been taken to the orphanage in Plymouth, was given Lizzie's baby to wet nurse. She welcomed the baby into her arms as if he had come from her own body. Lizzie had had the strength left to name the baby before she died. "George", she had whispered, though nobody knew enough about the woman to know why she had chosen the name.

The prisoners were called up to the deck for the funeral service in the early afternoon. Lizzie was just a roughly wrapped parcel of calico by the time they laid eyes on her. She was slid into the ocean without ceremony or fanfare, except for the quiet prayer of the ship's reverend. The only one crying was Baby George. 'How fitting', thought Charlotte, 'though how sad'.

As she turned to be led away with the rest of the women, a grimy hand, stringy with muscle held her back. The hand belonged to a naval man she had noticed before in the company of the doctor. "Not you", he murmured beneath his breath. "Walk with me toward the starboard." She began to tremble beneath her clothes, her hands cold and clammy, despite the sun's warm rays.  "Doctor said to take you to his cabin. He'll be with you shortly." The seaman smiled lustily at her as he looked over her figure and departed the cabin. 'Oh God', prayed Charlotte, 'help me'. She thought of Father Simmons and a little warm courage seeped through her veins. Someone in this world loved her, she remembered.

Looking around the room, she couldn't help but reflect on the difference between this airy and light filled cabin and the convict hold in which the women prisoners spent all their sleeping and waking hours, bar one each day. There was even a little bookcase set into a cavity of the cabin wall above an attached desk. She was reading some of the titles when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw a filthy guttersnipe so covered in grime and dirt as to completely obscure the poor thing's physical features. "Don't be afraid", she said to the waif as she held out her hand to it, "I won't hurt you". The waif's hand stretched out to her in instantaneous mimicry of her movement. Charlotte was dumbstruck to realise that a looking glass was attached to the back of the cabin door. The "guttersnipe" that she had addressed was her own reflection! Charlotte was still reeling from the shock of her own decrepit appearance when the door was suddenly swung open and Doctor Cooper strode in. "Good, you're here. Make yourself comfortable. Please, sit."  Mistaking the cause of her alarmed expression, he added, "Good God girl,  you needn't look so terrified, I'm not going to bite you!"

Charlotte TrueWhere stories live. Discover now