Charlotte calmed herself though she was not so sure of the doctor's claim to civility, given the circumstances in which she found herself in his cabin. She looked around the cabin for a seat. Besides the bunk and the desk chair, there was only one small wooden stool in the corner and she sat on its edge. Now there was light aplenty to see by, she took in the details of the doctor's appearance.
The doctor was thick around the shoulders – 'stocky' thought Charlotte to herself, but not excessively tall. He was clean-shaven with unlined skin. Charlotte reckoned the doctor's age to be in the mid twenties. He had an apparently permanently stern or at the very least, earnest cast to his profile. Charlotte wondered about the features which promoted this overall impression – perhaps the long aquiline nose; square, determined chin; wide, large eyes which were nevertheless quite closely set and framed by full, dark eyebrows. Yet, studying him now the whole effect seemed offset by fulsome lips and a chin that, though square, was also dimpled. Certainly capable of being described as 'handsome' Charlotte decided, the doctor's one compromising feature was a deep scar that ran from temple to chin. Perhaps 'mysterious' and 'swarthy' best described the doctor - both his appearance and demeanour. Doctor Cooper's aura matched his colouring – black hair and stormy eyes that promised an intensity of focus and regard that belied his youth.
Charlotte's thoughts were interrupted by an embarrassing awareness of the doctor's gaze regarding her with business-like sobriety. "Your name's Charlotte isn't it?"
"I can tell you're nervous. I've checked your background. From Lincolnshire, previously a chambermaid . . . .not the usual female convict profile. Ever worked the street?"
"I beg your pardon?" she began, shocked.
"Have you ever worked as a prostitute?"
"No, of course not!"
"What, are you – 15 . . . 16 years old?"
"I'm 16 though it is none of your business."
"You speak well for a maid."
"And you sir, speak with an arrogance and disregard for human dignity which I frankly, find astonishing in a person of your profession."
The doctor stood mute at this outburst, his mouth falling stupidly agape. If she were not so terrified of what lay ahead, she would have laughed.
"You read, write . . . ?"
"How? I mean, where did you learn?"
"My father was Henry Caprice – school governor to the families of many noblemen in our county back home. He taught me everything he taught them but also pianoforte, French and German."
"You said 'was' – is he dead?"
Charlotte detested the intrusion of this stranger into her meagre family history. "Yes, he is dead."
"And so, you the orphan, turned to theft in order to survive the nasty, nasty world."
"No! How dare you make such foul assumptions! I have never stolen in my life."
"So the police, the judge and jury – all completely wrong then when it came to deciding your guilt and you are an entirely misunderstood and innocent victim of the justice system!"
"Ha! So you say!"
Charlotte rose from her stool and determined she would not stand another moment with such a damnably insulting man.
"Where do you think you're going Charlotte?"
"I'm going below decks with the other prisoners."
"You will do no such thing. One word from me and Mrs Cruikshanks will make sure you will be in need of my attentions – and I'm speaking of my medical attentions Miss Caprice, never fear, the amorous ones."
"You know, I may just take my chances with Shanks . . . . ."
"And then of course there's baby George and the women prisoners who may find me far less accommodating to their needs than I have been in the past. The Surgeon-General's post is a very demanding one Charlotte and one cannot be expected to be in every place where one is wanted at once."
Charlotte slowly lowered her body back to the stool, but held her gaze steady on his face.
"A tumbler of rum for you Charlotte?" he asked picking up the decanter on the side table beside him and pouring a glass.
"No", she answered in a deadpan voice. He shoved the tumbler into her hand.
"Drink it", he commanded. She lifted the glass to her lips with shaking hands. She hated that he noticed. She took a sip and the foreign liquor burned her throat. She doubled over in a racking fit of coughing. "I don't believe it" he whispered to himself. "A goodness-to-gracious real virgin, a convict on this ship!"
Charlotte could still not reclaim her breath. She struggled for air, but every time she drew in a breath, her throat would burn once again and send her into a renewed coughing fit. The doctor took a pitcher of water and filled another glass and put it to her lips. "Drink it", he ordered again, all the while his eyes gazing at her with a look of incredulity. While she drank, he took her arms and examined her fingers and nails. She pulled away. He let her.
"Charlotte, you don't realize it yet. But I'm the best thing that could ever happen to you on this ship. Do you realise how much better your life on board this ship can be if you do what I say?"
"What, so you want me to be your whore and in return, I get some food and trinkets?!" she flung at him with a raspy voice.
"Oh no, no, no . . much, much more than that. You don't ever have to return to that hold for starters. Do you know that Caroline has small pox down there? She doesn't know it yet. Before we get to our destination, one in three of those women will have it, just because they share the same foul air as her. It's a death sentence. You might be one of the lucky ones. But then again, you might not be. You don't even have to risk it if you stay here."
She shrank against the cabin corner walls in shock. "Poor, poor Caroline. You must do something for her. You must . . . . "
"Are you listening to me Charlotte? It's incurable. There's no hope for her. We should isolate her somewhere so it doesn't spread, but there's nowhere else to quarantine her."
"What are you talking about 'nowhere else'? There's here for a start. There's anywhere . .a . . . . .a . . . storeroom. There must be somewhere she can be made comfortable without infecting the rest of the women?"
"Maybe you're right. Maybe I could think of somewhere. See how helpful you could be Charlotte to the rest of the women convicts by being here with me?"
She looked at him with disgust.
"Think about it Charlotte. In the meantime, I have requested the steward draw you a bath. It will be here soon. Soak . . . . . nay, scrub yourself well. I do not want the filth of the hold in my private cabin quarters. If, when I return, I do not find you as spick and spanly turned out as a soldier on parade day, I swear, I will soak and scrub you – all of you – to within an inch of your life. Do I make myself clear?"
Charlotte looked at the door. He read her thoughts instantly. "Do not even dream my dear, of going back to the hold. Believe me, you won't last long down there. Whether by means foul or natural, your end won't be long in coming. Then again, I guess that that is your choice. So, my very rare fish – stay or leave, you can do as you please." And with that, Doctor Edward Cooper departed the room. He hadn't touched her and yet, why did she feel like he already possessed her?
YOU ARE READING
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...