The King's Shilling Parts 1 & 2
"Come on, mate,ye don't want to spend all day in 'ere!"
shipmate's voice came to him from what seemed like very far away.
Far enough that it did not cause him to look up from the object he held
in his hands..
" Right, that'll come in right 'andy, it will. Fer wipin'
yer arse!" The other
man made to grab the book out of his hands, but he snatched it to his
breast and held fast. He said not a word, but glared at the other.
"Yer addled, that's what." The sailor dropped his
hands to his sides.
Then he spoke again in a tone of mock indulgence, "Fine then. As yer
such an educated gentleman you just stay here and look at yer books!"
He turned and gestured through the door of the shopfront and beyond
to the slice of harbour that was just visible over a jumble of rooftops. A
great number of ships lay at anchor there. " But in a few hours that flag
is gonna go up and we'll all be back on that bloody ship fer Christ
knows 'ow long, an' I don't mean to spend my last few hours in
Kingston in the bloody shops!" And with a great stomping of feet and
jangling of the string of goatbells that hung from the door, he was
The little shopkeeper stole a glance at his "customer"
from the safety
of his seat behind a table piled with dusty volumes. The man seemed
gentle enough, and he decided he was in no immediate danger.
Granted, he did not see a lot of custom from the typical jack tars that
frequented the port . This one was perhaps a petty officer of sorts,
clean and neat in his "run-ashore" togs, a middle aged man with
graying hair and a look of hard-won wisdom in his weathered features,
his sorrowful blue eyes. Doubtful he was going to buy, the little man
thought. Let him amuse himself with the picture books for awhile.
... He'd had a mind to find something, some kind of gift for the lad.
The lad! The lad was now his captain, and in truth, he knew not
whether it would be considered in any way proper for him to give such
a gift, but he just had the thought, wanted to do something, to say
something to show how glad he was , all of the men, and how relieved
at the outcome of this court-martial business. He knew too, that the lad
was suffering, grieving for the loss of his friend. Stupid bloody
business! Senseless and cruel! But the great stuffed, braided bastards
had been out for blood, and only blood would answer for it.
He sighed. Truly it had been the other one who had so loved
Always saying bits from plays and poetry and such. This was a barmy
idea, this. Wouldn't it be just his luck to give the lad a book that had
been a favorite of HIS. Rubbing salt in the wound, it would be.
But this book, the one that he held, had caught his eye. Many
newer volumes in the shop were stacked in piles of loose pages on
tables , and assorted examples of bindings hung on hooks on the
walls, ready for customers to make their choices. This one though,
was very old and used.It was as big and thick as the bible in The
Bishop's cabin aboard ship and was covered in a tattered velvet that
had once been red, but was now faded to a rusty pinkish color.The
fabric was worn through to the backing in places. He had turned a
page. He could read a bit, enough to read some Scripture and to study
the things he needed to know to achieve his rating, but he could not
read this. It did not seem to be in English, and the letters were printed
in a fancy way, all thick and curly-cued. He had turned another page...
... and felt his heart fall right out of his chest and land, like a ball of iron
, in the middle of his guts.
His mate had gone. He was alone in the place but for the little
who had seemed to be afraid they were going to bust something, but
who now ignored him. He set the book back down, carefully ,on the
table, keeping the place where he'd inserted his thumb when the other
had tried to grab it from him. He took a breath, and opened it again to
Fields of grain ripened under a late summer sky blue as any
seen in the Med, or the Aegean. Barley or rye, was what the farmers
had grown in the place that had once been his home. Beyond the
planted fields the little round grey-white shapes of sheep dotted the
distant hills. Two men rode off the page on a rick piled high with golden
hay, pulled by two heavy ,dappled horses. In the foreground a group of
women in kerchiefs and pinneys worked with long-handled rakes. And
standing among them, but apart, was a young girl, who, stopping to
rest from her work, had propped her rake straight up, both arms
wrapped around its handle. Her sunburned cheek rested upon her
hands as she turned her head to gaze out of the picture...at him.
Suddenly, he was eighteen years old again. Walking along a
cart road , bordered by those fields of barley and rye. The sun blazed
and the air was heavy, buzzing, and sticky and smelled of wildflowers
and trees and animals and the dust of the road. It was an otherly,
unaccustomed world to him, and even though he was very near the
village where he had been born and where he had lived 'til he was
eight, it was wholly unfamiliar and strange.
His ship, "Zebedee" had paid off two weeks ago in Southhampton,
and he'd stayed on for the run to Hull, where she was to be hauled out
for repairs. They had left here as boys,signed on to a merchantman, he
and his brother, Tom, who was two years older. The two day walk from
the port city to the village seemed somehow more arduous now than it
had those ten years ago, though he was a man grown and well used to
hard exercise. He'd trod thousands of miles on the decks of ships at
sea and a few thousand more aloft in ropes and rigging and yet his
legs and his body perceived a difference between all that start and
stop, back and forth, up and down and the simple act of putting one
foot in front of the other for hours on end.
Ten years gone. Letters from home had been fewer than he could
have counted on the fingers of one hand. Mam would go to see the
parson and he or one of his daughters would write for her . He knew
that Pap had passed in the winter of that first year.The older boys,
Joseph and Daniel worked their little plot and hired out as labourers
when they could. The girls, Mary and Joan had gone to work in the mills
of Leeds. The littlest, John,had died of a fever in '67.
His own letters home had probably numbered even fewer. He would
have to barter with others of the ships company-his spirit ration, the
sewing of a shirt, to have someone write a few lines for him. Then you
tried to get it on a mail packet headed home and heaven only knew if it
ever would get there. When,aboard their old ship, "Corwin",Tom had
taken sick and died, with nothing to be done for it , Captain West
himself had written the letter. Tom was just fourteen. That was a hard
time, for in those early years Tom had been his only family and very
much his protector. He'd not suffered as he might have had he been a
boy all alone aboard a ship full of strangers.
He reckoned now he needed no protection from anyone or anything.
In these ten years and on those two ships he'd seen the world; from
the coasts of Africa, to the ports of the West Indies, and the shores of
the America's. He'd rounded Cape Horn and back not once, but twice
and lived to tell the tale. On one such memorable voyage, "Corwin" had
nearly been lost and after many torturous weeks they'd limped to a
landfall in the Marquesas, where, happily, they had not been devoured
by cannibals, as had been feared. They 'd spent the next eight months
working to make the battered ship seaworthy once more. Work did not
progress quickly in those languid, tropical climes. Indeed there was
little to make a man think of hurrying when all he would do would be to
hasten his departure from paradise on earth, on his way to risking life
and limb once more to round that cursed Horn. Himself, he'd been
"adopted" by a family which had five daughters but no sons and who
had spoiled him within an inch of his life. He was fifteen, and if the truth
be told,it had come to pass that he had sinned shamefully( and
repeatedly) with three of his sweet, beautiful elder "sisters". He knew
he would someday be called to pay for his wickedness, but he knew
too he could never have resisted .Nor could he ever forget those
laughing,brown-skinned girls with their names like music: Tika. Huva.
Fa-we. At the base of his spine he carried the tattoo they had spent two
days making, plying him all the while with a vile tasting, thick white
liquor that numbed his senses and gave him strange and colorful
waking dreams as he lay on a mat of cool leaves in the shade of their
little hut. The tattoo girdled his lower waist almost round to his
hipbones in front, a band of intricate, mysterious designs in dark , inky
" What's that then? Is that a sailor-man?" He was
startled out of his
South Seas reverie by the sound of a woman's voice. He looked up to
see a group of about a half dozen of them. From the looks of their
grubby clothes and the implements lying about , they had been working
in the fields, and were now taking their ease in the shade of a large
tree beside the path where he walked.
"Oh, aye, it is! A fine young sailor-man." This from
a good-sized , red-
cheeked woman, who nudged her nearest companion. " I've always
'ad an eye for a sailor, I 'ave." She confided.
The other woman laughed, " Ye've an eye for a man, our
reckon ye can take the sailor part out!"
""Ow can I take the sailor's part out? I ain't 'ad it in yet!" Midge threw
back her head and cackled at her own joke.
"Aw, yer terrible!" The second woman swatted at her
friend. " Ye'll
frighten the poor young man! Good day to you, sir." She smiled and
raised her hand in greeting.
He stopped in front of them, lowering his small bundle of belongings
from his shoulder. "Good day, to you." He smiled. " I wager it'd take
more'n the sight of a few fine looking women such as yer selves to
frighten me!" The women tittered.
" And where would ye be headed, my luv?" asked Midge.
back at him revealing more than a few gaps where once had been
teeth. "The sea's t'other way."
" I'm at liberty, ma'am. I'm for seein' my old mam in the village 'ere."
"And 'oo would yer mother be, then, lad?
" She's Mrs. Matthews, ma'am. D'ye know 'er?
The woman gasped and clapped her hands , " Y'er Dorrie
lad? Young Jemmy?
"Aye! Jemmy." No one had called him that in years.
" Oh, yer mam will 'ave a fit to see ye! Ye've grown up
fine, ye 'ave. Ye
don't remember old Midge, do ye?"
He shrugged and smiled apologetically.
"No matter, lad." She shifted her ample backside
and patted the grass
beside her, " Come and sit. 'Ave a bite with us."
He hesitated. Surely there was not a lot to share. Midge held
earthen jar out to him. " Ye' must be dry. It's a 'ot day."
He was thirsty. He grinned and flopped down in the grass. The
the jar was deliciously cool and much stouter than anything he'd tasted
in a long while. He gulped greedily. When at last he lowered the jar he
saw the women were all smiling at him.
"Its good!" He laughed, "Thank ye!"
Midge was untying a linen bundle in her lap. " Jemmy Matthews,
'ere is Annie. An' next to 'her is Mame. That's our Genny, an' Bett. An'
this is Nan. Our Molly's aroun' 'ere somewhere. Gone to look fer 'er
little dog what run off." She passed him a great hunk of coarse bread,
and a lump of yellow cheese. She then produced a pot of pickle which
could be scooped out with a little wooden spoon. He was suddenly
very hungry. He began to eat. The simple food tasted wonderful.
Annie had bright yellow hair and a pock-marked face. She asked,
Surely y'eve not come back to stay, Mr. Matthews? What'll ye do once
ye've seen yer mam?"
He swallowed. " Aye, I reckon there's nowt for me 'ere.
But my mam is
getting on. I should like to see 'er some, give 'er my pay. Then it's
another ship for me I reckon. Been at sea me 'ole life. I reckon it's all I
know. Not a bad life, either." He had another bite of bread and cheese.
""Ere, I've got somethin' nice fer ye," Midge
undid a smaller cloth-
wrapped bundle. She held out a little pie with a deep golden crust.
Dark, sticky juice oozed from the slits on the top. " Our Molly made this.
Where's she got to anyway?"
"Thank ye. That does look nice." He took the pie
carefully from her
hand. He raised it to his lips. The smell was indescribable. Took a bite.
He'd not tasted blackberries since he'd been a little boy. The sweet,
juicy berries exploded on his tongue. The pastry melted in his mouth.
He threw back his head and closed his eyes. "Mmmmm!" he sighed.
"There ye are!" Midge exclaimed suddenly, "We
was startin' to wonder
where y'ed got to! Found the little bugger did ye? 'E don't 'alf look a
Jemmy Matthews lowered his head and opened his eyes. A young
girl was walking toward him. She was slim, sunburned, dressed in a
faded blue smock covered by a soiled apron. Wisps of light brown hair
escaped from under her linen kerchief. Her face was...pretty, but not
remarkably so, with large hazel eyes, a wide mouth and a small,
freckled nose that turned up a little too much. She carried a walking
staff, and running in circles about her feet was a tiny dog. Its wiry coat
was dirty and stuck all over with burrs.
What he felt was something like a shock of recognition. Not
knew her, but rather that he had always been meant to. He stared.
"We've got company," Midge called, "Come and
meet Mr. Matthews.
"E's just 'ad a bite of yer blackberry pie, an' now I think 'e wants to
The girl knelt bfore him, laying down her staff. I'm pleased
to meet ye,
sir." She said softly. "Ack! Wilf! Get off 'im!" The little dog leapt into his
lap trying to get the pie. She grabbed the dog and held it squirming and
whining in her lap. "Sorry." She smiled. Her teeth were even and white.
Looking at the young man and the girl, the older women exchanged
Said Midge,"Jemmy, this 'ere's our Molly."
Parson Pease peered at him over the thick-glassed spectacles
were perched halfway down his long, skinny, crooked nose. " Parsnip
Pease" was what Jemmy was thinking, for the nose resembled
nothing half so much as the pasty-coloured root vegetable of which
Jemmy had never been that fond.
"You've been home from sea not six weeks, have you , young man?"
The parson asked.
"It's more than six weeks now,sir." Jemmy wished
he'd omitted the
"sir". He didn't like the way the man was looking at him, nor the way he
"A short time indeed. To meet and to marry." He
folded his hands on
the table in front of him. Jemmy sat opposite him in the spare little
parsonage study. It was distinctly chilly in the room, and yet no one had
lit the fire. "Surely spring is the time for weddings. Is there perhaps
some reason for the urgency of your request to have the banns read so
Jemmy took his meaning but decided to pretend he did not.
his tongue hard. "The dried up old fart," he thought, "Wants all the
details, does e?"
"I love Molly, is the only reason,sir. And she loves
me." He answered
evenly. "I have a situation with the squire, and our own little cottage.
Can't see no good reason to wait, sir." Whatever business it is of
yours, he thought, He's not her father, is he?
Again the weaselly stare. "Very well, then. If you
will not wait then you
should be wed. Tis better to marry than to burn' as they say. The
banns shall be read the next three Sundays."
"Thank ye, sir" He shook the Parson's papery old
paw. That's done
with. He'd never said he wouldn't wait. He'd wait for Molly til Kingdom
come and gone again if need be. And sure he'd done no more than
kissed her. Well, not that much more.Hot, hurried kisses when he'd
managed to steal her from her chores. Melting, agonizing kisses when
they could be alone, out in her father's barn, or by the river, in the wood.
Kisses with no beginning and no end, and not being able to get close
enough, to hold the other tight enough, even with his hands under her
clothes, on her skin, never enough. Waiting was torment, but he would
do it - for her.
He married Molly at harvest time, in the little parish church
village where he was born , on a fine, crisp Sunday morning .The
church was decked with wheat-sheaves and grapevines and garlands
of straw braided into ropes and threaded with the last of the summer
roses. His mother was there, beaming and in good health, and his two
brothers, and their wives and children. The entire village turned out as
well, to feast and dance to the young couple's happiness and good
Molly was lovely, in a new gown of creamy wool, her golden
hair flowing loose down her back, as bespoke a virgin bride, with a
crown of pansies upon her head. Jemmy held both her hands as they
danced. The women all thought him a very fine figure, indeed, in his
new suit of clothes, a dark blue linen jacket and white waistcoat, canary
breeches and silk stockings. He was lean and fit and tanned from his
years at sea, his eyes ocean-blue and his hair a crop of wheat-gold
His new employer, Squire Willoughby, had sent a cask of his
cider as a wedding gift and throughout the day the other young men
were trying their best to get Jemmy well and truly drunk. "'Ere, ave
another!" cried Phinney Siwall, shoving yet another brimming, sloshing
mug into Jemmy's face, " Drink enough o' this an' spare yer poor wife
the disappointment fer one more night!" Everyone was roaring with
laughter, and Jemmy laughed too, partly because he was just happy,
and partly because he knew he'd been drinking like a sailor since he
was no more than a babe. It'd take more than a little sweet cider to put
At dusk a bonfire was lit in the village square as the revelry
showing no signs of stopping. Several of the young married women
took Molly in hand at last, wrapped her in a shawl and bundled her into
a pony cart to take her to her new home. As they approached the little
stone cottage, which sat on the edge of a pasture on the outskirts of
Squire Willoughby's farm , her little dog Wilf bounded out the front door
and ran to leap into her arms. " And what've you been up to then?" Molly
buried her nose in his rough coat, " Torn up my new featherbed, have
"Is that to be your excuse then?" teased her friend
Lizzie, a pretty dark-
haired young woman, married a year already, herself, "We can't,
darling, for the dog's ruined the bed!"
Molly blushed. Then anxiously, "Oh, Lizzie promise me
keep him from me! They've been pouring drink down him all day and I
just know they've got something wicked planned!"
Lizzie hugged her. "Oh, aye, I'm sure they have. But
if my John knows
whats good for him he'll see that your new husband makes it to your
bed tonight. And all in one piece!"
Good to his wife's word, John Hobble pulled Jemmy aside
at the first
opportune moment. "Better make yer escape now mate, whilst the
making is good!" he whispered, "Come wi' me!" he started pulling on
Jemmy's arm and Jemmy resisted at first, thinking that this might be
the start of of the traditional wedding night prank to try and keep the
groom away from his bride.
"Ye don't need ter worry about me, ye great fool!"
John hissed, "If
them other yobs git ahold a ye there likely ta have ye trussed up in a
ogshead all night or some such thing." He pulled Jemmy around the
side of a building, where a saddled horse awaited.
"I've never ridden." Jemmy said, blinking.
" Never mind," said John, taking the reins and
swinging up easily. "
As I'm on strictest orders te deliver ye in person." He held his hand out
to Jemmy, and with some awkwardness and grunting pulled him up
behind the saddle. They made their way out of the village as quietly as
possible, then John urged the horse into a canter, Jemmy's arms were
locked around his waist hanging on for dear life. He was glad Molly
wasn't seeing him looking so undignified, hugging the stuffing out of
another man for all he was worth.
John dropped him in the dooryard, his legs a little wobbly
staggered a bit when he hit the ground. John reached down and
clapped him on the shoulder. "There y'are,mate. Safe and sound.
What'd I tell ye?"
"Thank ye, friend." Jemmy said, as John wheeled
the horse and
trotted off into the dark. He turned toward the cottage. Light from the
little front window pooled in the dooryard. He went up the one stone
step ,lifted the latch and opened the door.
A fire burned in the hearth, but there was no other light.
trying to get his eyes to adjust. As he walked into the room there was a
rustling and crackling under his feet and a nice fragrance filled the air.
Someone had spread clean rushes, strewn with herbs on the stone
floor. " Molly?" he said softly, "Moll, where are ye?"
"I'm in the loft, Jem." Her voice came to him
from the dark. "I'm in the
His heart pounded in his chest as he made his way to the
narrow stair that was more of a ladder that went up to the sleeping loft.
He started climbing slowly, then hurrying the last few steps, proceeded
to crack his skull smartly on one of the ancient low-hanging roof
"AHH! BUGGER!" he cursed, tumbling forward and
falling with a loud
"thud" on the oaken plank floor of the loft.
"Jem!" Molly was on her knees at his side in a
moment, wrapping her
arms around him.
"Ow! Damn!" he swore again,Putting his hand to
his head, he felt
something warm and slippery. Molly put her hand over his.
"Jem, you're bleeding! Och! I knew you'd had too much to drink!"
His head was starting to clear, "Too much to drink?"
incredulously, "That's a fine way to greet your bridegroom, innit? What
nearly just got imself killed rushin' to meet ye!"
There was a moment of silence, and then the sound of a stifled
laugh. Finally she burst out in giggles.
"What? Yer laughin' at me now?"
Molly couldn't stop. "OH! OH! Oh, I'm s-s-sorry!" she squealed.
" Oh, this is very nice."
"Molly - "
"Oh, Jem, oh darling, its - just - so - FUNNY!"
Suddenly he had her in his arms, still laughing, but only
for a moment
more then she was quiet. He could feel her quick heartbeat. She was
breathless from laughter, her chest expanding and contracting rapidly
against him. Her breath was warm and sweet against his mouth.
"You're bleeding - " she whispered.
"Its nothing." He breathed her scent. " Molly - "
"I have to - you can't - " His mouth found hers.
His arms tightened
around her . She had on only a thin nightdress and he could feel all of
her as he never had. His hands slid down to her rounded little bottom,
then up again, along the ribcage. The kiss deepened, tongues
searching, twining. He felt her hands come up to his face, and then
suddenly, breaking the kiss, push him away.
"No." She panted, wriggling out of his embrace.
"You have to let me
take care of that. We don't want to get blood all over the b - " She
stopped, and there followed an embarrassed silence as they both
were thinking the same thing.In the dim light she looked at him shyly
through lowered lashes, "Well, not yours, anyway."
Then, before he could stop her she halfway down the stair.
she popped back up for a moment. " If you're in such a hurry, you could
get yourself out of those clothes before I get back." He thought he
caught the flash of a wicked smile before she ducked back down.
He made his way over to the bed, a simple, low wooden frame,
covered with the new feather tick that had been a gift from his mother.
He sat down on its edge. With his hand he felt the warmth of the place
where Molly had been lying. Soft. He began to remove his clothing,
taking care not to make contact with his head wound. Absently, he
wondered what she had done with the dog.
When Molly returned he was still in his breeches, having
shoes and stockings, jacket, waistcoat, neckcloth and shirt. She
brought a basin of water, some clean rags, and a candle ,which she
set on the little table beside the bed. She knelt before him, dipping a
rag in the water,squeezing it out and applying it gently to the cut. "Oh, its
not so bad," she said, "I think its stopped already. Does it hurt?"
He didn't answer. The candlelight made her skin glow like
and when she bent forward to look into his face, he saw, down the front
of her nightdress, her pretty round breasts.
"I asked you if your head hurts."
He shook his head. "No," then taking both her
hands, the one with the
cloth and the other and held them against his bare chest. "Here," he
said, "It aches here. Because you are so lovely and I love you so. It
"Silly - " It was barely a whisper. She stood,
dropped the wet rag into
the basin and pushed it aside. Suddenly the nightdress was on the
floor about her feet. She knelt again and taking his hand and placing it
on her own breast, breathed, "I love you so."
He scooped her into his arms, pulling her into the bed with
rolled so that she was almost beneath him. He felt her fingers working
at his buttons. He helped her.Breeches slid off and were kicked to the
floor. Supporting himself on one elbow, he slowly ran his other hand
up the length of her body. The swell of her hip, the soft, flat belly, the
curve of her ribs. She raised her fingers to his mouth for him to kiss.
"My love," she sighed.
"Molly, I - " she looked into his eyes and saw
almost a look of
"What is it?" She asked, tangling her fingers in his soft curls, bringing
his face close to hers.
He smiled. Gave a little laugh. "I-I think I'm afraid.!"
She smiled back at him. "Afraid? You goose, why would
ye be afraid?
I'm the one's never done this before." Softly she kissed his lips.
"No," he murmured against her mouth, "You're
wrong. I - have never
done - this - before."
Much later, when the candle had completely gone out and
wrapped together in darkness, he found himself yawning.
"Go to sleep." Molly whispered, kissing him again.
"Mmmm." He turned, stretched, felt with his bare
toes something at
the foot of the bed, under the covers. Something warm. Wooly.
"Aah!" He sat bolt upright in bed, threw off the cover.
"What - !" Molly propped herself up on her elbows.
"The dog is in the bed!"
" Oh." She flopped back down. "'Course he is. Its where he sleeps."
" Not any more! Not while we - we were - !"
"And ye paid him no mind at the time, did ye?"
She put her arms
around him, pulled him back down. " I love you. Sleep." She said.