Chapter 33: Before the Dawn Comes the Darkest Hour

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The first pink blush on the horizon seemed a much too beautiful start for a day that promised such horror. Despite the pre-dawn darkness, Charlotte's eyes still smarted at the burgeoning skylight after the black darkness of the interior of the ship's hull. Her legs ached from the heavy weight of irons that dragged on them and skin chaffed from the burning rub of the manacles as she walked. The sound of hammering greeted her appearance above decks, although one glance forward portside revealed the necessity for such activity – the erection of the gallows upon which she would soon be tied. Her fellow convicts were assembled in a pathetic arc, like an audience around a theatre stage. Of course, Bennett could not let go by the opportunity for deterrence that her flogging presented. She was to be made a public example.

She peered into the faces of those she passed. Many of them were in a jovial mood – anticipating with relish a morning of unexpected above decks entertainment – a salve to the monotony of relentless boredom to which they were usually subjected each day on board ship during the voyage. The only solemn faces were those of the women convicts who had been her companions during the first months of their voyage together. Shanks – God bless her, still alive – raised her fist into the air in signal to the others. As one, the women of the Fortuna raised their voices in song. All about were astonished to hear the most beautiful choir like singing emanating from the mouths of women they were more accustomed to hear cursing lewdly. Instead, they sang the hymn not long penned by Reverend John Newton, "Amazing Grace" and which, she remembered, she had sung lullaby like to herself each night during the first traumatic weeks of their voyage on the Fortuna.

She tasted bitter salt on her lips and realised that the sea was not the reason why; tears were streaming down her face. Captain Bennett gestured to one of the officers corralling the women convicts and the marine promptly began striking the women in an effort to silence them. The male convicts on the other side of the ship began to react to the overt cruelty unleashed upon their female counterparts. They began to loudly decry the actions of the soldiers against the women; a few of them began to sing the hymn in unison with the women; a number of others began to jostle the soldiers supervising them. Captain Bennett sensed an uprising. Raising his rifle to the air, he fired a single cannon. The shot stilled the threatening pandemonium about him. In the silence, his commanding presence loomed large. He bellowed: "That will be enough! Any man or woman who breaks the peace will take the prisoner's place on the gallows and receive HER two hundred lashes. Who would like to be the first?"

The words hung in the air. The surrounding silence was deafening. "So much for convict solidarity", a self-satisfied Captain Bennett began to say before being interrupted.

"I will!" came a cry, strong and high on the breeze. It was a voice she would recognise anywhere, yet could not believe she was hearing in the here and now. The crowd swung around in the direction of the voice. 'My God', thought Charlotte, 'it can't possibly be him!' A priest stood on the ship's rail just above the gangway, the white of his dog collar glinting against the black cloth in the full morning sun. A halo of auburn hair shone, framing the face Charlotte loved above all living beings in the world. "Father!" she gasped, collapsing to her knees in shock and relief.

"Who the devil?" the Captain spat out through gritted teeth.

The priest leaped, surprisingly athletically, to the deck and made his way into the theatre of spectacle.

"YOU!" the Captain shouted at the priest once he was near enough for the Captain to identify.

"It's been a long time Capt'n Bennett. I feel complimented that you remember me", the priest responded sardonically.

Charlotte TrueWhere stories live. Discover now