Beth stared at the fob-watch the urchin had thrown into her shopping basket before disappearing into the alleyway. She picked it up, chain dangling through her fingers, and inspected it. It was gold and obviously worth a lot of money. There was only one thing to do. She wrapped her hand around it and walked uphill towards the police station.
‘Oh no you don’t!’ Fat fingers gripped her upper arm. ‘I’ll have that back.’
Beth glanced briefly at the man’s angry face, noting the deep-set black eyes and neat black mustache. She wanted to ask if the watch belonged to him and tell him how she had come by it. Fear and respect for her elders and betters left the words unformed. She released her grip on the watch and the man hurriedly returned it to a pocket in his waist-coat.
She should be getting on with Mamma’s shopping or there would be no dinner tonight. What a tale she’d have for her wide eyed brothers and sisters. Perhaps there would be a reward. What would she buy with it? She imagined the smile on Mamma’s face as she held out a rabbit, or maybe even a chicken. She could hear her voice, ‘See how good God is, children.’
The stranger’s grip tightened on her arm as she turned back towards the greengrocer’s. ‘The police station is this way.’
The judge’s gravel hammered home her sentence. ‘Transported to the Colony of New South Wales for life.’
In the dock Beth had barely been aware of the proceeding, desperately seeking out her mother’s face in the throng. She had not seen her since the day she had been accused of stealing the fob-watch. Deep inside her she knew, once she left the court room of the Old Bailey, they’d never see each other again. There. She was wearing the lemon bonnet Beth had trimmed for her that spring. Their eyes met. Beth’s mother raised a gloved hand to her eyes and then her lips. It was their special signal. At home, her mother seemed to be aware of the exact moment Beth’s nine younger siblings became too much for her daughter. Sweating over the laundry vat, she would push back damp curls of hair, smile, touch her eye and her lips and murmur, ‘The Lord Jesus loves you, he watches over you and smiles.’
Beth craned her neck, holding her mother’s tremulous gaze until the very last second.
Three months into the voyage and half a world away from home, Beth had become used to the stench of human excrement. The degradation. The vermin. The harsh voices of the ragged women pressed around her. But not hunger. Hunger threatened to turn her servant heart.
Each morning and each night she recited Psalm 23. The dark, dank hold of the convict ship was as close to the valley of death as she could imagine. Daily she prayed for strength not to be afraid of the coarse women and the soldiers they entertained. Daily she gave thanks for the moldy bread and stagnant water. Daily she touched her eyes and her mouth and tried to visualize the Lord Jesus, smiling.
‘Can any of you read or write?’
‘I can.’ A big breasted woman pushed herself to the front of the cell. ‘You want me to read your ladies’ love letters, sailor?’
‘A-v-o-n-y-o-u.’ She said triumphantly.
The sailor tested several women before Beth. The words were harder but she knew them all. The cell was unlocked and to catcalls that made her blush Beth was taken topside. There maids stripped her and scrubbed her clean with salt water and lye soap. Beth submitted willingly to the indignity, grateful to be clean but disliking the dress that showed far too much cleavage. Fearing the worst, still she clung to the words of the Psalm. I will fear no evil.
The Captain inspected Beth shrewdly. ‘Best of a bad bunch, I suppose.’ He twirled his fob-watch in a well manicured hand. ‘We have seven children on board in need of schooling. Can you do that?’
‘See that you do or it’s back with the whores and thieves where you belong.’
The school room was a piece of canvas shading the foredeck. The small children flocked around her.
She sat on an upturned crate and smiled. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Psalm 23 King James Version quoted throughout.
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