Chapter 24: On Board with Monsieur

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Charlotte was touched to see the measures Monsieur had taken to ensure her privacy and comfort inside his rather large cabin. For a start, he had sectioned off a good portion of the cabin with curtains and placed a comfortable bed within it for her use. It was a cabin within a cabin and after the deprivations of the convict hold, it seemed as sumptuous as a palace – clean and spacious and blessedly, filled with natural light. Charlotte could not contain her delight when she saw it. "Oh Monsieur, how did you manage to obtain such a cabin!"

"It is all the doing of Sir Benjamin mademoiselle! For our work, we need the natural light, non? Plenty of portholes!" he declared as he tapped on the four portholes lining the side of the cabin. "I think they were made for the cannons non? But, they allowed us the use of this one for Sir Watts and his work!" A long trestle table was also set up along the length of the cabin and beneath the portholes. On it lay all manner of specimens, paper, charcoal and books. Charlotte's fingers caressed the rough texture of the fibrous paper; she took up the shards of charcoal and pressed them to her nose breathing in the long ago scent of the earth and ash and finally she brushed the palms of her hands along the smooth leather of the bound books. "Oh, I missed you all so much," she whispered to the objects lying on the table as if they were old friends.

Henri watched her with a sad smile. The sea breeze wafted its maritime smells through the portholes to them and an albatross squawked as it passed the ship.  An emotional Monsieur turned his back to her suddenly. "I am so sorry Charlotte", he uttered in barely a whisper.

"Why Monsieur? Why did you let her do this to me?" Her tone was not upset. She did not feel angry. Her thoughts indeed were not on the past, but with the other female convicts she had left behind on the Fortuna, languishing in the filth and dank darkness of the convict hold below decks. She felt? She felt . . . grateful, she realised, with a guilty shudder.

"Charlotte, Lady Watts is a sick woman. If it helps you to know it, she is more a prisoner than you. Sir Benjamin has had her committed to Bedlam Hospital for treatment. Her mind, it is disturbed. She does not talk. She does not eat. She does not move."

"I mean you, Monsieur. Why did you say nothing in my defence when I was being convicted of theft?"

"Charlotte, O Charlotte . . . you do not understand. Everything was chaos after you were taken to prison. I was in London. Sir Benjamin's life hung in the balance after his heart attack. Everything was confused. When Sir Benjamin recovered, he told me that he believed his wife had made it look as if you had stolen her necklace. Charlotte, he begged me to spare his wife the ignominy of criminal prosecution and social ostracism. He said it would kill her."

"So, you preferred that I should die!" she exclaimed in horror.

"No, no, never that . . . Sir Benjamin promised me that he would intervene. You would not be executed. He promised that. He told me he would make it easy for you. You would not suffer; that I would be placed on the convict ship with you and everything would be as it was before. Our work would continue."

"Make it easy for me? I would not suffer?" She looked incredulously at him before releasing a small stifled scream of frustration. Monsieur had the decency at least, to look abashed and ashamed. "Henri, I am a convict. Do you know what that means? I am a convict with a life sentence. I will never be free again. I will always be a slave to whoever holds the keys for the time being to my prison. You are my warder at the moment and yes, I am in a very nice prison at the moment. But it is STILL a prison. I have no choices here. . . . And what happens when you – die for instance? When Sir Benjamin dies? Who will be my next warder? What will my next prison be like? I am not even going to try to describe the horrors of what I have lived through during the past 6 months. Unspeakable cruelty, mind breaking terror . . this Monsieur, this is what you and Sir Benjamin Watts sentenced me to when you decided not to tell the truth. And you speak of continuing our work together 'just as it was before'? Have you no shame Monsieur? Have you no idea of the devastation of what you have done?" Her eyes bored into his, grinding away his convenient, blustering self-delusional excuses.

Silence. Henri could return her stare no longer. He looked at the floor instead and crumpled to his knees. The hands he reached out to her shook with a more violent tremor than she remembered. She looked to the small bedside dresser beside his bed and saw the remnants of a bottle of rum with a large collection of empty bottles under his bed. "Please . . please Charlotte . . .forgive me" he wept. She sat down on the chair beside the trestle table and placed her head in her hands. She felt numb. Raising her head she inspected the papers on the table and found the journal she and Monsieur had been working on before her arrest. No further pages had been completed; yet several torn papers evidencing failed and shaky attempts at botanical drawings littered the table, stained with . . . rum?

She looked at her old friend with new eyes – a diminished man who had betrayed her and would seek to use her still. "I can't Henri. Not right now. I can't forgive you. You have ruined me." She thought of Father Simmons. What would he say to her if he was here right now? She remembered the sting of his slap the day she was arrested. 'Be tough,' he had said.

"I don't feel angry towards you," she said to him - "strangely", she added as she arched her eyebrows at his increasingly hope filled face. "In fact, when I look at you, I can't deny that I like you. I'm glad you're here.  But don't ask me to forgive you the past yet, because I simply don't know what I am to do about it."

"That's more than I deserve Charlotte, and if it's any help, I will do everything in my power to see that you do not remain a convict."

"I should have thought that went without saying", she replied. "Still, I'm very glad you did. I shall hold you to that promise Monsieur Le Bas. In the meantime, I will use your help to improve the conditions of the other convict women on these blasted ships. How far can we push Sir Benjamin Watts' influence with Captain Bennett to help the women convicts?"

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