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Thursday, December 15, 2016

The Prison Tide by Sef Churchill

Sef Churchill took up my challenge to "Write like the Dickens."  Here is her new masterpiece.    I'm so proud to be honoring her hard work on my blog.  Be sure to check out Sef's own blog at http://sefchurchill.com/.   I am declaring February to be "Poe Your Heart Out Month," so be sure to sign up for my e-mail list for information on how to create your own Edgar Allan Poe inspired piece and be featured on this blog.  Good luck to all of you creatives out there and happy writing!




The ship on the marsh swayed in the November wind. As it swayed, it groaned, and as it groaned, it echoed the cries of the gulls which swooped down to the silvery mud, hoping for unlucky fish.

A low boat wove among the treacherous channels which meandered across the mudflats. At slack tide the flats appeared benign enough. Enterprising folk plucked a living from mollusks and cargo which had been insufficiently secured. At high water, however, these very streams made a deadly funnel for the incoming sea. No boat ventured out then, and only the wiliest of local watermen  knew the safe route through.

Mercy Grabbett gathered her shawl about her and watched the gulls. To anyone watching, it might seem that her thin figure was another one of the huddled sacks of laundry, heaped against each other in the belly of the little boat. But closer inspection would show a girl of perhaps nineteen, hair of the colour they call chestnut, and hazel eyes dimmed often by long work and short rest. There was a light in her eyes, however, a fresh light, as yet unnoticed by anyone but the person who inspired it, which made her face twice as interesting as that of most washer women.

Mercy's guardian, Frozzle, steered the craft. She called him simply Frozzle.  He was Mr. Frozzle only when they were in company, which was nearly every night, for as well as supplying the prison ship with fresh linen, Frozzle and Mercy tended the ale barrels at the Silent Tide, the inn on the marsh.

Frozzle took Mercy in when her parents were drowned near the old jetty,  and since nobody else wanted her, kept her as his daughter, or niece, or maid of all work, depending on the circumstances and who might be asking. Frozzle, with his wiry grey hair and cap always askance, ran the Tide, and the laundry service, with a quavering hand, but it might still be raised against Mercy when strong drink was in the question.

"Here she is," said Frozzle.

Since the hull of the prison ship rose before them like a cliff, Mercy made no reply.

"You run up and fetch the dirties," continued Frozzle. "I'll put these aboard."

Mercy did as she was bade, slithering up the rope ladder as nimbly as any lascar, onto the slimy deck of the prison ship. Meanwhile Frozzle attached a hook and rope to the first of the laundry sacks.

Mercy bobbed a curtsey to Dodge, the prison steward and, by default, ship's captain. Dodge saluted back, in a way he'd studied from real sea captains. Dodge had earned his present rank at Her Majesty's pleasure. He ascended to the lofty title of Captain  principally by being the only prisoner who had ever been on board a ship prior to being incarcerated on one.  He did not have many maritime duties, for this, like other prison hulks, would never sail again.

 Mercy hurried to the hatch.  Her thin shoes slipped and slid on the mildewed deck, but she kept her hands stuffed into her apron pocket. Into the hatch she went, and down, down, down a rotting ladder to the prisoner decks,

In spite of the dark, she found the place she wanted. She sought not the room where Dodge piled up the stinking laundry for collection, but a narrow door, one among many, with a number 77 painted on it. She knocked five times.

Immediately a slip of folded paper shot out from under the door. Mercy snatched it up, and unfolding it,  read with eager eyes. She nodded, although there was nobody to see. From her apron she pulled a small bundle, which might have been twigs, or cigars, and a thin coil of ship's rope. "How can I give them to you?" she whispered.

"Wait," came a hoarse cry from within. "Wait one moment!"

Mercy waited, praying that nobody, especially Frozzle, would come upon her here, among the makeshift prison cells, where she should not be. 

"Stand back a little," said the voice behind the door.

She complied.

A sound came like a rat gnawing an empty bone, and then a splinter of wood freed itself from the door, and made a hole, just at the level of Mercy's eyes. She bent to it.

"I could free myself from this hole anytime," said the prisoner, "if I was prepared to pay the price on my head. Which I'm not. Pass me what you have brought."

Mercy hesitated. "If I'm caught, we'll both hang," she said. "Even though you are innocent." He had protested his blamelessness many times.

"They care not for innocence or guilt, only the appearance of justice," said the prisoner. "Quick now!"

Still Mercy held back with the rope, and the matches.

The prisoner pressed his eye to the new gap, and gazed at Mercy. "You are as kind as I imagined," he said. "And more beautiful."

Mercy said nothing. However much she might wish to return the compliment, she could not, for she could see only an eye, and a hank of black hair.  Sighing, she poked the rope through the hole, and the matches.

"You do your country a great service."

"I do myself the service," said Mercy, emboldened, "and I care nothing for the country as long as we can run away, and be married."

He drew back a little.

"Stand back," she said. "Let me see you."

He did so.

She saw a tall, thin man, dressed in the fashion of twenty years before. A long coat, and full shirt hung from his shoulders, and the remains of stockings clung to his calves. His shoes were intact,  but for missing the silver buckles , sold, by Mercy, to pay for certain supplies. He was not handsome, but what is handsome when justice is in the question? And he loved her, or said he did. Either one was more than Mercy had ever known.

"It will be tonight," he said. "I will light the ship, and you will guide me across the marsh."

"I will be ready," she said, "with a lantern." 

She hesitated. "A stranger came to the Tide. Asking about you. I told him nothing, but Frozzle, my, my uncle, may have told him you were here."

"How would he know that?" cried the prisoner in sudden anger. "Have you betrayed me? You harlot,  who has told you my name  -"

"Your name is on your laundry," said Mercy.

Silence. Then, in the old gentle tone, "Forgive me, my love. When this is over I will never doubt you."

"I must go," she said. "Goodbye. and - I long for when we will be together!"

She turned, and with all the confidence of youth and love, slipped away into the dark

***

The prison hulk flamed against the winter sky. Night was drawing on rapidly, advancing over the marsh like a black fog. The tide followed the night close at heel, like a dog sniffing for scraps, liable to turn vicious if refused.

Mercy stood at the edge of the mudflat, her face lit by the fire raging through the shell of the old ship. She watched for the prisoner to arrive, which at last he did, his boots mud-drenched, his clothes dripping. She gave him her cloak, and said she would lead him to the road.  He strode towards it.

She ran after him. "Wait my love, where shall we meet?"

"We shan't. I'm free now."

"But you promised -"

Too late, she realized her folly. Before her hunched a desperate man, convicted of the gravest crimes, and now believed by all to be dead. Why would he choose obligation, when he could choose freedom?

In Mercy's heart, a hardness formed, a lump of loss and bitterness. "Wait, she said, "the road, you will never find your way. Not at dusk, not even by the light of the flames."

"I see it there."

"No! The tide, the water here deceives."

He stopped and waited for her. "Which way then?" he said, folding her cloak tightly about him to disguise his ragged clothes.

She pointed. "Make for the old jetty. From it, you will see the road. East is Rochester, west is Dartford."

He grunted.

"No farewell for me," she said. Here was his chance, his last chance. "No thanks?"

"For a laundry girl who sold my silver buckles and doubtless profited more than the paltry coins I got?" He laughed, a cold laugh, and his face twisted. 

The bitterness in Mercy's heart set to stone.

"Then go," she said, "the way I told you."

She picked her way towards the Silent Tide inn.

Frozzle was waiting, with a glass of porter, and a frown at her muddy clogs. "Evil deeds tonight," he said. "The prison ship aflame and all the men dead, they say."

"Is that what they say," she said, swallowing porter.

"And a big tide coming," he went on, "twill sweep what's left of that vessel up to London and back out again to France. There will be nothing to see come morning."

Mercy bent her head over her drink, and thought of the prisoner, following the line of the jetty into the path of the tide. She swallowed the last dregs, and turned aside thoughts of the past. "The tide takes what it will," she said, and held out her glass. 

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