Authors: D C Grant
Where the Flag Floats
D C Grant
Distributed by Standfast Publications
Copyright D C Grant 2007
All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or means, electronic, mechanical or digital, including photocopying, recording, storage in any information retrieval system or otherwise without the prior written permission of the author
All characters in this book are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
The writing of historical fiction involves a certain amount of time pouring over documents in libraries and spending vast amounts of time in museums. I want to thank the staff at the Bill Laxton Maritime Library at Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum for the assistance with some of the lesser known facts of the shipwreck of the Orpheus including a comprehensive crew list. Voyager New Zealand Maritime Museum also has an excellent permanent exhibition with many artifacts which provided a great source of information and inspiration. Thanks also to John Milligan, writer and director of the documentary “Shipwreck: The Wreck of the Orpheus” (Greenstone Pictures). Thanks also to Lorraine Orman for her critique of the first chapter and Frances Plumpton for her encouragement and knowledge of the subject.
And last, but in no ways the least, thanks to Jill Marshall for believing in me.
In Memory of
Ian Duncan Grant
1961 – 1997
The heroes of the Orpheus
Shall have their meed of fame
Wherever floats the British flag
Or sounds the British name
(From a poem composed by an Australian shortly after the sad occurrence)
My tutor, Mr Griffin, said that I must write an essay for English composition, but I do not want to write an essay. Instead I wish to go down to the sea and play in the waves with my friend Maki.
I look up from my desk, and through the study window I can see the ships at anchor in the Waitemata Harbour. They strain against their anchors as if they wish to break the bond that holds them, just as I desire to break the invisible bond of Mr Griffin's discipline that holds me fast to the desk. But if I close my eyes, I can imagine the lurch of the deck beneath my feet and hear the reef points fluttering against the canvas sails. I can feel the shudder of the ship as she moves through the waves and the smell of brine in the wind that blows across the deck. I sigh – how I wish to be at sea again.
I have come a long way in three years. In January 1863 I was an illiterate petty thief, but now I can read and write and I no longer steal to feed myself. I should celebrate that and write my essay. I shall write about the sea and my journey across it, and the search for the family I never knew I had. I shall start at the beginning: in Sydney in the dead of the night as I watched my mother struggle to breathe.
Sydney, 30 January 1863
My mother was dangerously ill. She had stopped coughing but blood was on her lips and in her mouth, and I wiped her face with a damp cloth and listened to her wheezing. It was all I could do as we had no money for a doctor, though even a doctor could do little to stop the consumption eating away her lungs. She had become worse during the preceding day and I wondered if she would see the morning.
Beside her the single candle cast a flickering light over her face. The rest of the room was in darkness. There was not much but the single bed on which she lay, the table in the middle and the utensils upon it. The fire in the grate had gone out a few days ago – I’d not been able to get the wood to feed it. Since Mother had become ill, she had not been able to earn the few pennies she received as a laundress and I had sold what I could for food. That, too, had run out some days ago and I had been unable to roam the streets and pilfer food for I had not wanted to leave her, in case she died while I was gone.
She stirred and grimaced with pain. Her eyes opened and fixed on me.
“Sam,” she said.
“Hush, Mother, rest.”
“I’ll rest in heaven.” Her words soft – I had to lean close to hear.
“I don’t want you to go,” I said. “What I am to do without you?” Panic closed my throat and tears sprung to my eyes. I used the cloth in my hand to wipe them away; I did not want her to see me cry. I was trying to be strong for her but my blood was running cold in my veins – I was scared. I could not think of the future, could not think of life without her. I would be motherless, homeless and penniless. I had grown up on the streets, but the streets could be brutal and I did not know how I could survive the savagery of the older boys who ran the gangs. I would be swallowed up, churned up and spat out – alive or dead, I did not know.
I dipped the cloth into a bowl of water and again wiped the blood from her lips. They moved and I thought she spoke but if she did, I could not hear. Her eyes closed and she was very still apart from her shallow breathing. I jumped up and started to pace the room, wanting to do anything but watch her struggle for each breath. Death was a constant event in The Rocks and every day a cart rattled its way to the cemetery, but I could not think of my mother on one of those carts; no, not my mother. I sank down to my knees next to her again and wiped the damp cloth across her forehead.
Her eyes opened and looked up at me so I tried to smile.
“Sam.” There was urgency in her voice. “Look under my pillow. It’s for you.”
“Me?” I asked, wondering what she was saying. Was she delirious?
“Yes … quick … there’s no time left.”
I put my hand under the pillow, feeling around under her head, until my hand touched something small and round. I pulled out a small leather pouch tied with a drawstring. Cautiously I loosened the string and tipped the contents out onto my hand. I gasped; in my palm lay a man’s gold pocket watch with a fine gold chain.
“Where … what … did you take it?” I stammered.
“Not me,” she said although I knew this already. My mother never stole anything, although the other women kept whatever they found in the pockets of the laundry they washed.
“Whose is it?”
“My father?” I had never known my father. I turned the watch over and found words engraved on the back but, as I could not read, I did not know what they said and I felt inadequate. This angered me and I let my fear direct my anger at my mother.
“This would have bought us food!” I said. “Paid for the doctor, got proper care. Why didn’t you tell me? You kept it hidden from me. How could you?”
My mother didn’t answer. Her fevered eyes looked into mine and my rage left me as suddenly as it had come. I laid my head gently on her chest as I used to do when I was young and needed the comfort and strength of my mother. But my mother’s chest trembled and I could hear the fluid in her lungs. I lifted my head.
“I’m sorry, Mother, I didn’t mean it. It’s all right now. I’ll sell it and get the doctor and he’ll make you better.”
“No,” and she laid her hand on mine. I could see in her face the effort it took for her to draw in breath. Her voice was soft and I had to lean forward to hear her. “Take it to New Zealand.”
“To Auckland … to your father’s sister.” She paused while she struggled for air. “She has to take you in. You are kin.”
“How will … where …”
There was a rattle in my mother’s throat and she gasped, “Her name is on the watch.”
She did not take another breath.
I wept then, taking big shuddering gulps that shook my whole body, and I made no attempt to stop the tears that flowed down my face. I was both angry and scared; angry at God, and scared of being alone. With a shaking hand, I closed my mother’s eyes, but I had no pennies to place on them. I had no shroud, no coffin, and no money for a cart to take her to the church. I looked down at the object in my hand. What use was a watch to me? I could not tell the time nor could I read the words on the back. Its value lay in how much I could get for it and whether that would be enough to pay for my mother’s funeral. She deserved that one dignity at least.
I sat in that dark room alone, weeping until exhausted while I waited for the morning. I held my mother’s hand as it grew cold and, in my other hand, I held the watch, rolling it slowly over and over in my palm. I wondered about my father’s family and his sister, my aunt, about whom I knew nothing. I hardly knew anything about my father either for my mother scarcely talked of him, just saying he was a soldier and had died before I was born. They had never married, which made me a bastard, but so were most of the other boys on the streets. As far as I was aware we had no other family – it had been just Mother and me for as long as I could remember.
As the morning sun began to cast its dim light through the small window, I thought of going first to the pawnbroker and then the undertaker. But thinking was all I could do, for my eyes swelled with tears and my chest hurt and I couldn’t bear to move from my mother’s side.
A loud thump at the door startled me and I almost dropped the watch. Had the undertaker come already? But how did he know my mother was dead?
The door rattled as whoever was on the other side tried to open it.
“Come on, Mrs Galloway, I know you’re in there!”
It was Mr Hagman, the landlord. I had no money for the rent so I quickly put the watch back into its leather bag and dropped it into my pocket while the man pounded on the door. I drew back the bolt and the door flew open, knocking me off my feet and I could do little but lay still on the floor while Mr Hagman looked down at me in contempt. Two other men were with him, one of whom I recognized as the bailiff.
“Where is your mother?” Mr Hagman asked.
I struggled to my feet and pointed to the bed. Pushing me aside, Mr Hagman strode to the bed and said, “Come on, Mrs Galloway, where is that rent you owe me? If you cannot give it to me, I’ve got the bailiff here to throw both you and your bastard out!”
He stopped by the bed and looked down at her, waiting for an answer. Perhaps in the darkness of the room, he could not see that she was dead.
“She died in the night, sir,” I said, coming forward.
“Dead? She’s dead?” He looked at me. “Well, then, that makes you responsible for the rent. So where is it?”
“I don’t have it, sir.”
The bailiff and the other man had now come in and they surrounded me.
“It’s a good thing the bailiff is here. We shall have to take something to pay for the rent.” The men looked around the room but there was nothing of any value. Mr Hagman looked at me again. “So how were you going to pay for her interment?”
Without thinking, my hand went to my pocket, to the watch in its leather bag.
“What you got there, boy?”
I stepped away, and bumped into the third man behind me.
“Grab him, Carlson!” Mr Hagman shouted but I was quicker and ducked away. His hand grabbed my shirt and I stumbled, jerked away, my shirt tearing in his grasp, making for the door – but I was not fast enough. I was pushed from behind and I lost my footing and fell to the floor. Someone landed on top of me and the air rushed from my lungs. I tried to wriggle out from under him, but he was too strong.
Mr Hagman crouched down beside me and felt in my pocket, drawing out the leather pouch. “What’s in here then?” he asked as he pulled at the drawstrings.
“Really, now how can something this fine belong to you?” He dangled the watch in front of me as it hung from his fingers by its gold chain.
“My mother gave it to me; it’s my father’s.”
The man, Carlson, released me; I sprung to my feet, stretching my hand towards the watch but Mr Hagman drew it out of my reach.
“She probably stole it, but never mind. Stolen or not, it’s mine now in return for the rent.” He lowered it into the leather pouch and closed it up. “It’ll pay for the cleaning of this room too,” he said, looking around with his nose all wrinkled. “Disinfectant will be needed.”
He was distracted. The bailiff and the man named Carlson turned to leave. I jumped to my feet, snatched the leather pouch from the landlord’s hand, and sprinted out the door before any of the well-fed, well-dressed men could react. With a shout, they came after me, but I was away. I knew these streets, knew the twists and turns and I’d had experience of pursuit before. I could not be caught; not by these men, not by the policeman, for I’d done it before and had got away.
That was until I turned the corner and ran into a solid body. A strong hand clasped my shoulder.
“Now why would you be running, boy?” a gruff voice asked.
I looked into a tanned and lined face. I don’t know why, but I instantly knew he was a sailor, probably from one of the ships in the harbour. He was old, in his thirties, I reckoned, and the hand on my shoulder was big and strong. I could not twist away.
“Please, sir, believe me, I didn’t steal the watch,” I blurted out, breathless. “My mother died. It’s to pay for her funeral.”
His eyes stared into mine for what seemed like ages but must have only been a few seconds. At any moment, my pursuers would be coming around the corner to arrest me.
The man tugged at my arm.
“This way,” was all he said, before hauling me back along the street and into a nearby doorway. He pushed me inside and I found myself in a tavern. It was dark and empty and I could not see much.
“Phil, if anyone asks, you haven’t seen us, right?” the man said.
A voice from somewhere in the darkness shouted back, “Right.”
I crashed into a chair as I was unaccustomed to the dark.
“Quiet, boy, you’ll have them in here after us.”
He pushed me through the room towards a deeper darkness at the back, through a curtain and into a kitchen. There was a table in the middle of the room with food on it and my mouth watered, but we didn’t linger. He shoved me to the side, towards a cupboard, forced me down to the floor and closed the doors. I slid down. My breath was ragged in my lungs while the smells from the kitchen made my stomach rumble and I was sure my pursuers would hear it if they came into the room.
I heard voices and I strained to hear but could not make out the words. Then a footfall sounded close to the cupboard door and Mr Hagman said, “He’s not hiding in the back here?”
Phil’s voice drifted back. “No, there’s been no lad through here. Now please leave. We’re closed.”
“Humpff,” Mr Hagman said. Footsteps faded away and I let out the breath I didn’t realize I was holding.
I don’t know how long I stayed in the cupboard. It felt like hours and all the time the aroma of the food tortured me. I suppose it was only minutes but when you’re tired and hungry and there’s food and a warm fire close by, any length of time can seem endless.
Suddenly the cupboard door opened and instinctively I raised my hands in defence of myself, for I was sure it was Mr Hagman. Instead, it was the sailor.
“Right,” he said as he pulled me to my feet. “Now tell me the truth, boy, or I’ll hand you over to a constable.”
“Feed the boy first, Fred,” said a woman’s voice. “You can see he’s half-starved.”
“You call that half-starved, Alice?” said Fred. “More like fully starved.” He laughed and turned to me. “Sit at the table, boy, and you can tell me your story once you’ve had your fill.”
I needed no encouragement and fell on the food with enthusiasm. There was bread freshly baked, cut into thick slices with butter and preserve on top; a pot of porridge with thick molasses to sweeten it, and hot, sweet tea with milk to wash it all down. It was a feast. Fred sat down and watched me eat. The woman left the kitchen, taking food into the tavern and I heard her talking to Phil.
“So,” Fred said, as I finally finished gorging myself. “What’s this watch you’re talking about?”
I looked at him with my suspicions raised. Why was he asking? Why had he hid me? Was it so he could have the watch for himself? I eased myself closer to the edge of the bench in preparation for a quick exit. He must have seen the intent in my eyes as he curled his fingers around my forearm, anchoring me to the table.
“You’re not thinking of running again, are you? Not when I’ve provided you with a decent breakfast. Who are you and who’s chasing you?”
“My name is Sam Galloway. Mr Hagman is after me; he wants the rent money.”
“You have the rent money?”
“No, sir, I don’t.”
“But you have a watch?’
“Yes, sir. But it’s mine. My mother gave it to me before she died; she said it belonged to my father. He was given it by his sister and I have to take it to New Zealand.”
“When did your mother die?”
“Just this morning, sir, and Mr Hagman came before I could fetch the undertaker.”
“Let’s see this watch.” Fred held up his hand.
I drew the pouch out of my pocket and laid it on the table reluctantly. Fred tipped the watch into the palm of his hand and turned it over so he could look at the back.
“What does it say?” I asked, anxious to find out the name on the back.
“You can’t read?”
“Neither can I.” Fred put the watch back into the pouch, drew the drawstring tight and to my dismay, slipped the watch into his trouser pocket.
“There’s one way to see if you’re telling the truth, Sam,” he said as he pushed his chair back. “Take me to where you live and I can see your dead mother for myself.”
“Where are you going, Fred?” Alice asked as she came back into the kitchen.
“Me and Sam are just going for a walk, aren’t we, Sam?”
I was helpless. Fred had my watch and I had to get it back from him. I would have to wait for an opportunity to lift it from his pocket and make a run for it before he realised.
As Fred placed his heavy hand on my shoulder he said, “You lead the way.”