Disheveled, unwashed convicts lined the walls, eyes hazy with sleep. The cook's mates threaded their wheelbarrows through the confusion in the dark corridor, in a great hurry to deliver the morning ration, but why the haste? Mary Claire asked where they were being taken, but no one had so much as a second to spare in giving an answer. She tipped the mug to her lips and swallowed half of the gruel before handing the rest to Bridie. They weren't fed enough to keep body and soul together, so she'd mind the souls while Bridie tended the bodies and they'd parcel out the rations to their liking. The very idea of acting with a touch of independence, infringing the jail's regulations, led to a giggle that Mary Claire couldn't hold inside.
Sure it would be trouble this time. Just as she tucked her crust of bread into Bridie's bodice, an officer standing near them was splashed with gruel. It was the laugh that made him glare at her, a dark frown that as much as accused her of mocking his anger at the smear on his trousers, which was not the case at all. He kept looking at her, even after she'd wiped the smile from her face, like he was searching for someone he had never met but expected to recognize.
Mary Claire put her shoulders back, to stand without fear while the officer examined the group of women who shone in proud contrast to the rest of the female prisoners. With their hair neatly braided, black and red and yellow and brown, they could have been a group of proper young ladies at a country house party, just roused from sleep by their mischievous host. Except for Mary Claire, they were none of them ladies at all, but the infamous Dublin Doxies. The officer scanned their faces and Mary Claire stared right back. The company of whores had been good enough for the Lord God himself, and she'd not flinch at the company of fallen women, not even if he thought she was one of them. What did his British opinion matter, to a woman whose only crime was being Irish?
"Chains," a deep voice echoed off the cold stones, the cry arising from the men's section and moving forward.
The armorers pounded shackles onto the wrists of the last two women, and the officer startled, as if he had been shaken awake by a bad dream. "Is this necessary?" he said to an older man who must have been in charge. "They are weak and defenseless females, sir. You would chain these peaceful, passive creatures?"
"Where are they taking us?" someone else asked, but if there was a reply it was drowned out by the clatter of metal against stone. The officer stepped back, to avoid the long length of chain that was being threaded through the rings on the ankle shackles.
"Damn your orders," the officer murmured under his breath, speaking to the back of his superior. The armorer went about his business until he had two rows of ten women strung together like fish on a line, not caring if the women were peaceful or blood-thirsty harridans.
Lt. Plowman's ears were deaf to the high-pitched caterwauling and the whispered threats and vulgarities. In three months time, and the clock was running, he had to turn a determined enemy into a loyal friend, and accomplish the task in utter secrecy. They had given him the job because he was the one best suited to it, with a list of turncoats to his credit, but the Fenians were not easily broken. Ready to embark, he had no idea how he was going to carry out his order, to take a political prisoner and bend her to his will, to plant his spy in the middle of the Fenians in Western Australia. He had no idea who he was even looking for in the writhing masses, not when he expected to find a child and the twenty prisoners were women grown old before their time.
"Where are we going?" one of the female prisoners asked.
The distinctive sound of feet scuffling on damp-slicked stones, mixed with the clatter of leg irons, lifted up from the men's section. The jangle meant it was time to stop fretting about the days ahead, to stop admiring the four beautiful women who must have been the infamous Dublin Doxies he had heard so much about. Plowman cleared his mind of all lascivious thoughts, to better collect memories as a witness to the end of an era. Milling before him was a human cargo, the scum of Queen Victoria's realm, about to walk into history.
"Where?" The anguished whisper passed through the two columns as the women were propelled into the middle of the corridor by shoves from the guards.
“You’re bound for Australia,” a guard said. It was an abbreviation for their true fate, a slow death at hard labor, a fate that made hanging a comparative act of mercy.
The convict gang stirred in alarm, the women commencing an ear-splitting chorus of sobs and howls that echoed and re-echoed from wall to floor to ceiling in a swirl of terrified grief. Only the Dublin Doxies maintained their composure, heads high and mouths pulled tight into tense nonchalance. Plowman’s eyes met those of the raven-haired girl, clear eyes that flashed fire. She stared at him, glaring with a deeply burning hatred. It was the murderous glower of a soldier in battle, an attitude that he had never seen in a woman. Transfixed, he could not look away.
From the far reaches of the dimly lit space, a voice rose up and echoed through the cavernous depths of the prison. “Eireann go Bragh,” an Irishman proclaimed, an act of daring that was answered with the dull thump of hard fist ramming a soft gut. A few others picked up the call, the phrase repeated by some of the political prisoners, the civilian and military Fenians who were now aware that they were sailing to their death.
Her lips moved, pale and dry, the words not spoken but spat out, slapped into Plowman’s face. “Eireann go Bragh,” the pile of dirty rags echoed the chorus of rebellion, daring him to silence her with his fist.
“Eireann’s going to Australia, miss,” Simon replied, amused by the outburst.
In a way, there was something sweetly charming in the girl’s naiveté. Her strong political leanings were quite rare in a female, and a fair colleen at that, but it was her spirited impudence that brought the smile to his face. The Dublin Doxies were members of the highest echelon of the profession, women who could command the most exorbitant fees for flirtation, conversation and sex. He would give the little black-haired sprite about a month before she stopped being so outspoken, with her Irish ardor cooled in the hold of a prison ship. By then, she would trade her favors for a biscuit or a handful of raisins, her arrogance tempered by hunger and her pride cast aside by want. She might glare at him now, but before long, when her belly grumbled with hunger, she would have nothing but smiles and kisses for Lt. Plowman.
The warder barked out a command, "Stand. Ready. March," rousing Simon out of his lust-filled reverie. At once, the Marines and prison guards swung into action, prodding twenty women and two hundred fifty-eight men with rifle butts, bayonets, boots and strong arms until the columns began to move towards the door. The cries of the convicts nearly drowned out the harsh rasp of metal chains clanking and scraping on stone as all the feet began to shift in unison. Plowman reached out to give the lead group a push, only to find the Irish girl’s backbone pressing into his palm. An image flashed into his mind, a recollection from his childhood during the Great Hunger, of taut skin stretched over sharp bones. The taste of bile was on his tongue, as it had been then.
They marched along the quay that led to a waiting steamship, bundles of ragged convicts and their guards in brilliant scarlet, all together in a driving rain. Among the crowd that watched the parade pass by were family members who came to say farewell to a loved one, to steal a last kiss or a final embrace that was roughly torn apart by a jailer. Lt. Plowman watched it play out, until he noticed that no one wept over the women. They were alone in the world, to make their way until they were caught and convicted. No one would miss them.
Through the mist and clouds it was impossible to see the tall-masted vessel that would be their prison for the next three months. The women noticed the small paddlewheel steamer, and they balked when they were propelled towards the gangplank, screaming that they would die of exposure on the open deck. As a group, they were convinced that the threat of transportation was merely a ruse, to cover up a far more brutal manner of execution followed by wholesale burial at sea to hide the evidence.
“Buck up, Bridie,” Simon heard the Irish lass whisper to her mate. It was a soldier’s daring bravado shared with a wavering colleague, spoken by a young woman who did not yet comprehend what she was facing. It was easy to be brave in the face of ignorance, to buck up against the unimaginable.
At the end of the procession were a group of men who knew all too well what their future held, men who once were proud soldiers in Her Majesty’s Irish regiments. Every one of them had been found guilty of desertion and treason, willing participants in the Fenian movement who had taken up arms against the Crown. Plowman had run across them in the ranks, Irish men and boys who learned soldiering in the British Army so that they could turn that talent against England. Staring a brutal death in the face, they were soldiers still, marching with precision and pride as they made their way down Portland Hill.
Before the last passenger was put aboard the lighter, those already on deck were green with seasickness. The boat rocked violently in the chop of the harbor, the planks growing slick with the downpour that swabbed the deck. Shivering in her prison-issued gray wool dress, Mary Claire watched the gangplank, searching for a savior, for rescue, or a familiar face. Friends had sprung her brothers from a locked police van, spoiling the hangman's day. Surely they would do as much for her, to save her from seven years of torment in a God-forsaken wilderness.
“He’s taken a fancy to you, that one.” Bridie nudged Mary Claire. “Don’t let pride get in your way.”
“That’s what put me here,” Mary Claire said.
“Ah, now, ‘tis good advice I'm giving you,” Bridie said.
“You just stay close by, lamb, and we'll guide you through so that you come out hale and hearty at the other end,” Moira Perkins said. “Free and independent, now that’s a grand life for a woman.”
“Quiet there, quiet,” the guard ordered. He was a very young man, clearly puffing up with an overblown sense of importance.
“It’s not our silence you’ll be asking for tonight, love,” Cornelia teased the fresh-faced Marine. Groaning in make-believe arousal, she attacked. “Oh, my angel, oh, yes, you are such a powerful man.”
Uproarious laughter followed as the former residents of a rather tony bordello mocked the embarrassed blush of a virginal boy. Once wounded, the young victim was quickly torn to shreds by a torrent of verbal abuse. In self-defense and inexperience, he lashed out in turn, going after the one woman whose jaw was clenched in angry defiance.
“Here’s one who knows how to keep her mouth shut,” he sneered, jabbing at Mary Claire’s middle with his bayonet. “Fine company you’re keeping, Your Ladyship.”
“Once a girl’s put a knife in one soldier, it’s nothing to cut another,” Bridie lied.
“And that skinny neck won’t need more than a penknife, not like the other gent who played too rough,” Cornelia added.
“Shut up or I’ll run you through,” the man barked, but his voice cracked on a high note as he lost his courage.
“Run me through with your little pistol?” Cornelia cooed, reaching for his groin with her manacled hands. Chained to Hettie, and then to another eighteen women, the result was four female tentacles groping while the other convicts were forced into close proximity by the limited length of the chains.
“Oh, what a lovely big rifle you’ve got for me,” Hettie tormented him. “Run me through, love, run me through.”
Lt. Plowman generally ignored the low notes of prisoners’ murmurings, knowing that women could not possibly keep silent any more than they could keep from weeping at the slightest provocation. When a throng began to mill around one of his men, he moved at once to quell a potential riot. Guarding women could be far easier, yet far more dangerous, than monitoring the male convicts, with the hazards falling on a green young Marine who had yet to learn the art of bantering with whores. Once women of that class detected a weakness, the word could be spread to the men’s quarters, and the seeds of mutiny were planted as easily as that.
Shouting with authority, Simon waded into the churning mass with his revolver drawn, only to be met with sarcastic comments and shrieking guffaws as the women asked for men, rather than little boys, to look after them. Arkwright’s cheeks burned red as another round of raucous feminine laughter filled his ears.
“Silence, the lot of you,” Plowman shouted. In reply, he was bombarded with an onslaught of coquettish, sidelong glances and coy smiles as the fallen women played their games. Calling for order, he roughly shoved the women into regimented lines, to set the rules with a bit of force and signal an end to their fun.
The women sauntered into poses that implied submission to the authorities, two lines of ten side by side. Much to his surprise, Plowman found that he was watching the Irish girl, the set of her chin proudly obstinate as she ignored every scarlet coat that stood around the deck of the paddlewheel steamer, rain pouring down her face.
“This is where Eireann go Bragh has brought you,” he whispered in the Irish girl's ear. “They steal your rations and you’ll grow wise or be dead before this voyage ends.”
“Who are you accusing of being a thief?” the plumper one hissed.
“He calls us thieves,” the madam mumbled.
“Silence,” Plowman screamed, so close to the woman's ear that she cringed.
Arkwright was sent to the middle of the column, where the civilian political prisoners would present less of a challenge, and Mr. Scofield came up to replace the boy. An older man who had seen much of the world, the pensioner guard looked no nonsense, and he was accorded a little respect.
The lieutenant walked away, but Moira took note of the backward glance that lingered on Mary Claire’s rump. “Better to be one man’s pet than a slave to all,” she said. “You’ll get more out of him if you play the game. The power to control your fate lies between your legs, and if you’ll use what God gave you, you’ll not go hungry.”
“I’ll starve to death before I’ll sell myself to any man,” Mary Claire said.
“Pride, Mary Claire,” Bridie admonished. “Temper your pride and live.”
A roll of the boat’s hull nearly bowled them all over, and the misery of seasickness did more to silence the women than any orders from their jailers. Once the steamer began to move, the pitching grew worse, and the cries of the prisoners rose up through the storm. Under the driving rain, the menacing outline of the transport ship loomed out of the dark mists, and three women screamed at the sight of the black hulled Hellebore, the ship that was nicknamed “Hell’s Door” by the men who sailed her. Looking at the masts, Mary Claire thought of Jesus on the cross. Christ had died for her sins, or so she was told as a child, and she feared that the time had come for her to die for her sins as well.
Almost before the boat had tied up alongside the Hellebore, the women were jostled and prodded up the steps of the gangplank, their pace slowed by nausea and the weight of the chains draped on their bodies. Outstretched arms heaved them up to the deck, using brute force to speed things along. The black-haired woman’s limbs were trembling so violently that she could scarcely make one foot go in front of the other, and Mr. Scofield gave her a hearty shove by way of assistance. Plowman caught her as she tumbled against him.
“Watch your step, ladies,” he sang out pleasantly, as agreeable as a guest at a picnic. He shared his smile with the Irish girl who had fallen into his arms, momentarily picturing her black hair twined in his fingers. She cut him, as ruthless in her disregard as any society matron, and Simon had the peculiar sensation of being utterly and completely invisible, nonexistent even as he stood at her side. Helping her to retain her balance, he whispered in her ear, “Steady as she goes, Miss Eireann go Bragh.”
It was nearly impossible to stand at all as the prison ship heaved, up and down and side to side. Bodies undulated, keeping time to the shackles that scraped out a rhythm at their feet. Bridie squeezed Mary Claire’s hand. “God help me, Mary Claire,” Bridie moaned. “Holy Mary, Mother of God.”
“Come on, Bridie, we’ll have a prayer and take your mind off things. Heavenly Father,” Mary Claire said, “send your Son to strike down the vile beasts that are all around us.”
“All men are beasts,” Varena growled. “Best learn that now, Mary Claire, before they eat you alive. Men are animals, filthy and disgusting animals.”
Changing the topic swiftly, Moira repeated her mantra about free passage to Australia, crowing about the opportunity that Perth presented. Ignoring the madam’s artificial cheer, and feeling a man’s eyes on her, Mary Claire looked up and saw the Marine officer cast his gaze to his toes. So let him think she was a criminal; she was powerless to refute him. She possessed one thing the English could not bend or break, and that was an iron will. Whatever vile name they might paste on her, she would never give up the cause of freedom.
The gentleman’s eyelashes flicked briefly as he peeked at his captives. Mary Claire wanted to laugh at his ridiculous posture, studying the seams in the deck as if his heart was empty of dirty thoughts and he was merely doing his duty in case the ladies should sprout wings likes Lir's children and fly away. When she caught his eye, she gave him a chilling glare, to let him know that she was above Her Majesty’s petty humiliations. As far as she was concerned, the lieutenant was the pauper and she was the princess, not about to be humbled by such degradation. With one flash of her hazel eyes, she set him in his place.
Manhandled roughly into their ranks, the female prisoners stood on the deck with the rain still falling, no longer a downpour but a steady drizzle that added more misery to an existence that could not become more miserable. Weak and exhausted, Mary Claire wobbled when the armorers came through the row and knocked off the manacles. She was too feeble to lift her arms, to look at the abrasions that bled onto the sleeves of her coarse dress and the worn black wool of her stockings.
“Prisoners, attention,” one of the warders shouted. He called out two numbers, and the women were jostled into place at the door of the iron cage that covered the forward hatchway. Two by two, a double line was formed that quickly grew ragged as those at the back shifted to see what was in front, while the warder barked out orders to straighten the line, over and over, before he would continue.
The amount of light on the prison deck was kept at a minimum, and the hold of the Hellebore looked like a deep and black pit, the very mouth of hell. The women at the head of the column were the first into the dark abyss, and their wailing erupted anew and spread through the group. Not one female was willing to enter the fearsome pit, and it took strong hands grabbing and pushing to send the first pair down the steps. Faltering in the darkness, side by side, they strained to see where they were in the very dim light of a single lantern.
“Prisoner 2564,” a guard yelled, and Varena was thrust forward and sideways along a corridor, disappearing into the shadows. From the blackness came the sound of feet stumbling on unfamiliar footing, followed quickly by an order to “Get in your bunk and stay there until you are told to get out.” Standing at the foot of the stairs
on the prison deck, Mary Claire was grabbed by a guard and sent down the
corridor to an open door. Just in front of her, she could see Bridie being
shoved towards a rack of cots that lined the walls where tall shadows danced
like devils in the glow of a single lantern.
It was quickly her turn, and Mary Claire was given the same rough treatment,
heaved into the cot below Bridie as the guards stacked them, two layers of
paralysis, she lay on the coarse wooden planks and listened to the groans of
the men who were just now experiencing what the women had already been through.
All voices were extinguished by the fear that gripped the dark corner of the
hold, where twenty human beings stared at dark shadows. In silence they remained as the hatches were
shut; without a murmur they listened to the thunderous sound of the anchor
chains rattling in the hawseholes directly below them. In silence they remained as the Hellebore groaned and began to move,
starting on a fourteen thousand mile journey that tore the convicts away from
home, family and friends, most likely forever.
All at once, a howl rose up from the prison deck as two hundred
seventy-eight terrified people lost all hope.