Back From Beyond
This tender complete story by Mary Kettlewell is set in Plymouth in 1854. When Josephine met Abel, she was shocked to learn of his past. How could such a kind and gentle man be a criminal?
A romantic story by Mary Kettlewell
JOSEPHINE SALTMARSH stood beneath the hanging sign of her father’s alehouse in Plymouth, the Ancient Mariner. A salt breeze rose from the turgid waters of the dock and caught the dark tresses of her hair. Behind her lay the warm parlour of the inn with its wood fire, rich smell of seamen’s baccy and wooden benches.
The scene before her eyes was darker. A line of pale-faced, ragged men slouched past, the chains on their ankles clinking dismally. Moored at the dockside and bristling with tough seamen stood the Mary Lee, bound for a convict settlement in distant Australia.
Two men stared back, shoulders bowed in despair, and blew her kisses. Kind at heart, Josephine could not deprive them of this last pathetic gesture, for she guessed what trials lay ahead for them.
Tossing the hair out of her eyes, she touched a hand to her lips. The ramp was hauled up, the hawsers unknotted, a breeze caught the sails of the ship and she eased her way past the Hoe.
Turning on her heel Josephine went back to the bar. Her father, Jacob, was tapping a barrel of ale in the cellar.
“Father, I have just seen another convict ship set sail for Australia. The poor men looked so downtrodden.”
“Aye, they would, Josephine. But remember, they have all committed felonies.”
“The punishment is so harsh. One of the draymen told me you can get five years for theft and life banishment after a second offence.”
“That may be so, lass, but others on that ship have committed arson, highway robbery and much worse.” His muscles bulged as he upended the keg. “They’ve brought it on themselves.”
Josephine climbed the dark wooden stairway of the inn. Eve, her mother, was polishing tankards commemorating the Great Exhibition that had taken place three years previously in 1851.
“Did you see those poor men being herded on to the ship, Mother?” “I did, Josephine. A sorry sight indeed.” “I know they’ve done wrong, but it’s a terrible punishment. Father has no sympathy.”
“You are not right there. Jacob always has a soft spot for the underdog, but an innkeeper has to be tough. We get some hard men in here.”
The ship was a faint smudge on the horizon.
“How long does the voyage take, Mother?”
“Between three and four months, depending on the wind and tides.” Josephine shook her head. “They’ll suffer cruelly for what they’ve done.”
THE following day the SS Hesperus arrived from Perth and the dock was a jostling crowd, amazed to have reached dry land at last.
A noisy group made their way to the inn, ordered drinks and mutton pies and settled down on the benches.
Some while later a thin man entered. He was in his early thirties, Josephine guessed, but he looked older. His skin was burned dark by the sun, his hair unkempt.
He walked up to the bar swaying from side to side with his sea legs. He caught Josephine’s eye and gave his order.
“A tankard of your ale and a meat pie, if you please, mistress.”
Just as she placed the foaming mug on the bar top a coarse voice rang out from the party of men who had disembarked.
“You don’t want to serve him, girl. He’s a thief – a common criminal.” Another voice chipped in. “The man’s a convict. He should have stayed put in Australia, not come back here with his thieving paws.”
Jacob’s voice was like gravel.