Authors: Paul Dowswell
Tags: #General Fiction
We spent the next few hours on HMS
. Richard tried to lift our spirits. âMiddlewych will be pressing for an appeal. And I'll bet Robert Neville will be doing all he can, too.'
But no good news came our way. Late that afternoon a squad of marines came to the cell and we were told our execution would take place the following morning. My legs felt weak and I desperately wanted to sit down, but instead we were dragged off, placed on a boat and rowed through the murky dusk back to the
. I looked at the thin pink streaks over the western sky and realised
this was the last sunset I would ever see. By the forenoon watch the next morning we'd both be dead.
Back on the
a small locker room in the hold had been prepared as a condemned cell. We were given paper and ink so we could write last letters, and this mercifully filled our time.
During the evening, just after the start of the first watch, Robert Neville came down with the ship's cook, who asked us what we would like to eat. I knew at once what I wanted â bacon and eggs, the same meal we'd had the morning after we had survived the wrecking of the
. Richard thought this a fine choice and the cook scurried off to prepare our meal.
Robert looked at us with great concern. He was trying hard to keep his composure, but there were tears in his eyes. âThere's nothing more I can do. I've tried to raise the matter with Captain Foley, but he sent me on my way with a flea in my ear. I've written to my father, but I can't imagine he'll get my letter for another two or three weeks. You know I believe you're absolutely innocent, don't you?'
âWill you promise me to watch Oliver Pritchard like a hawk?' I said. âI don't want him to do this to anyone else.'
Robert took my hand and said solemnly, âAnd his father. I swear to you Sam. If I can pay them back for
this, I will. One day they'll slip up, and I'll be there to see them hang.' He said it so firmly, I didn't doubt it.
The cook reappeared with two plates of bacon and eggs, and Robert sat with us while we ate. Although none of us could think of anything to say, it was good to have him there. Richard and I gave him our letters, Richard's to his family, mine to my family and Rosie, and Robert promised to make sure they would be delivered. Then it was time for him to go.
âI've got something else for you, too,' he said, fetching a half-bottle of rum from his pocket. âIt's not much but it's the most I could get you. Drink it to help you sleep or share it in the morning. It'll ease the passage of events, and they can hardly flog you for being drunk.'
It seemed like a good idea. We all hugged each other. Then Robert said, âYou've had a tooth out, haven't you Sam, on the
? Wasn't that the most painful thing that ever happened to you?' I nodded. âWell, I'm told being hanged is much less of a trial. It'll be over in an instant.' With that he was gone.
An awkward silence settled between us. I wanted to tell Richard how sorry I was that he had become caught up in this business, and that it was all my fault. But I couldn't think of the right way to say it. Besides, I didn't want him to become angry with me. He was my best friend and an evening of bitter recrimination would be a terrible way to spend our last night on earth.
After a while he spoke, but with no sign of anger. âYou know what the pirates always said,' he smiled. â“A short life but a merry one!” Have you had a merry life Sam?'
I thought about it. âI've had an interesting life, I suppose. I'm not really old enough to have had a merry one. I do know, though, that I've seen things my father never dreamed of. I can't say I'm sorry to have gone to sea.'
âMe neither,' said Richard. âPerhaps we should have become pirates. We'd have met the same fate, but had three times as much fun!'
We talked about pirates. Richard had read Captain Charles Johnson's
A General History of the Pyrates
and regaled me with tales of Edward Teach, the Bristol slave trader turned pirate known as Blackbeard. âQuite a one for the ladies was old Blackbeard,' he laughed. âOver his life he persuaded fourteen different women to marry him! They realised they'd made a terrible mistake when he insisted on sharing them with the rest of his crew.'
Then Richard grew wistful. âI always thought this business with girls, you know, kissing and all the rest of it, was soppy. But now I think it would have been nice to have had a girl of my own.'
Later that evening we had another visitor. It was the ship's chaplain, the Reverend Edward Eaves. Neither of us was particularly pleased to see him. His eyes seemed blurry, and his speech slurred. As he leaned close to talk
I could smell spirits on his breath. âI've come to take your confessions, boys, so you may meet your maker with pure hearts.'
Without waiting for a response he went on, âDo you renounce the devil and all his works, the pomp and vanity of this wicked world, and all the sinful lusts of the flesh?'
We mumbled along with the familiar prayers, and when the ceremony was over I asked the Reverend several questions which had been troubling me. Did God know we are innocent? Did he know we didn't commit the sins for which we were being executed? Would we be given a decent Christian funeral or was this denied to those who are executed?
I hoped Eaves would provide me with words of comfort, as our village parson had done when my two younger brothers had died of the smallpox.
âGod knows all things, boys, and is most merciful,' he said. Then his voice faltered. I could see he was struggling to answer. âThe things I've seen this last month aboard this ship. The blood may have washed off my hands, but I'll never forget the smell in the surgeon's cockpit. The screams of the dying. And now this. You two good boys. Heaven knows, you don't deserve to die.'
We seized on his words. Did he know something about Giddes and the Pritchards that could save us? We
bombarded him with questions, but he just looked blank. He obviously didn't have a clue what we were talking about. Then he began to cry unashamedly, placing his head on my shoulder. Richard looked on appalled, and then he had an idea. He went to fetch the half-bottle of rum and handed it to him.
âDo you want some of this?' he said.
The Reverend took it without any sign of surprise and much to our amazement drained a quarter of the bottle in a single lengthy swig. Then he collapsed into a mute silence as the powerful spirit coursed around his body.
A few minutes later he began to speak again in a quiet voice. Although he slurred his words still, he sounded lucid and not a little angry. He seemed sunk in despair.
âI've seen more than my share of madness on this ship, but the fact that you boys are facing a desperately unjust fate perplexes me greatly. To tell you frankly, I've increasingly come to believe we live in a rudderless world.'
Then he staggered away, and the guard locked the door behind him.
âThank you for those words of comfort, Reverend,' said Richard under his breath. âThey were a great help to us both.'
âHe's perplexed?' I said. âNot as much as we are.' The whole exchange had been so odd I started to laugh.
Richard lay his head down and closed his eyes. Soon he was asleep. As for me, I was determined to stay awake all night, alone with my thoughts. I tried to think of my earliest memory, but that part of my life was clouded by the deaths of my younger brothers. So I thought instead of Rosie, and how we had played together as children.
Sometime in the middle of the night I drifted off to sleep. In my dreams I was on the beach at Yarmouth with Rosie, both of us digging furiously with wooden spades in the sand, trying to build a wall strong enough to withstand the assault of the incoming tide. Everything seemed so vivid. The white spume on the waves, the sunlight on the golden sand, the sky a rich blue. The sea made a magical sound tinkling on the pebbles and shells of the beach as it reached further towards us with its foamy tendrils. The smell of the salty water made me feel incredibly alive. As we built our wall, we used the sand to make a mound behind it. Then we retreated to our mound and stood high in the wind, arms around each other, so we wouldn't fall into the approaching water. Then, in my dream, we were no longer children. Rosie was the young woman I had last seen a year ago. We began to caress each other, her skin hot from the sun. She turned her face to mine and we kissed passionately. As the walls we had built dissolved, the sea surrounded
our crumbling mound and we fell backwards into the cold water. But even this did not cool her ardour. Rosie kissed me again and I felt so happy I could burst.
There was a brisk commotion outside our door and I woke with a start. Our guards had brought us burgoo and scotch coffee. âCan't hang a man without a proper breakfast,' said one.
We washed, dressed and waited. We both decided we would not drink the rum. âI feel sick enough already,' I said. I should have felt more frightened, but our circumstances seemed unreal â almost as if I were still dreaming.
The marine guard arrived. A sergeant bound our hands behind our backs and they took us shuffling out on to the upper deck, irons and chains still round our ankles. Now, in the chilly morning air, everything felt far too real. A yellow flag flew from the mast head, in recognition of the execution to come. I quailed when I saw the two ropes with nooses fashioned at their base. They were run through blocks attached to the foremast yardarm and suspended right above the cathead at the bow of the ship. At the other end of the ropes stood a team of ten men apiece. It would be their job to pull on the rope and hang us. I recognised none of them. They must have been brought on board from another ship.
Over the rails I could see the
by boats from other ships of the fleet, gathered to bear witness to our fate. The whole of our ship was turned out on deck. âWho'd have thought we were that important?' said Richard. I took my cue from him. They'd accused us of cowardice. We would show them how wrong they were by dying bravely.
Captain Foley read the Articles of War to the crew, which seemed to take forever. I started to shiver in the dawn, and worried that my shipmates might think I was trembling with fear. I caught the eye of Oliver Pritchard and he smiled a cold-eyed smile. My resolve to be brave began to crumble. The bastard had won. He had framed us and got away with it. A terrible anger rose within me, then a great sadness. I tried to stifle a sob. Richard turned to me. âChin up, friend.' He said it so kindly I was consoled.
As Foley droned on, I gazed around. Tom and James were there among the crew. I caught their eyes and gave them a sad smile. It was turning into a beautiful spring morning, much like the one when I had first gone to sea a year before. As we stood there on the deck a strong wind blew in from the west. It was not a cold wind, and I felt invigorated by its presence. I thought of the words from the Bible:
To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die
Then I noticed Foley had finished reading and was telling the crew why we were to be hanged. We were brought forward to the cathead, and a noose was placed around our necks. The Reverend Eaves was standing close by, looking quite blank. The rope felt coarse and heavy on my skin. My legs began to tremble. âStand straight, stand straight,' I told myself. âDon't let them see you're afraid.'
My eye was drawn to a small gull gliding overhead, its wings bright in the sunlight. It was the last thing I saw before a canvas hood was placed roughly over my head. I reached over to Richard and found his hand. We both held on to each other tight and waited for the Bosun's whistle to pipe âHoist away', and the sickening jolt that would hurl us into the air.
I waited and waited, blood pounded in my ears, legs shaking. I feared I would not be able to stand up much longer. Every breath I took, I thought would be the last before the rope tightened mercilessly around my windpipe. Sweet Jesus, get it over with. Why were they taking so long? Then I heard the Bosun pipe âStand down'. Hands grabbed me and lifted me off the cathead. The hood and rope were snatched from my head.
I glanced at Richard. He was white as a sheet, looking wildly around. What was happening? Shouldn't we be dead by now?
Captain Foley spoke again, loud and clear, for all the ship's company to hear. âIt is my solemn duty to pronounce that on the authority of the Admiral of the Fleet, the death sentence on Samuel Witchall and Richard Buckley has been commuted. In place of death they will be transported for life.'
The crew gave a cheer. Oliver Pritchard looked flabbergasted. I looked him square in the face. If I get the chance, I thought, I shall kill you one day. Then the world faded from view and I felt a great whirling in my ears.