The King's Shilling Part 3
by Juliet

Two years. Of two score and five, there were two years wherein he'd
been blessed. Blessed with a gift he'd neither sought nor dreamed of ,
no, not ever in the life he'd lived before. In the first of the many hard
years that were to follow, he'd seen his heart as a room with a door,
heavily barred and locked. His pain and anger still burned afresh at the
smallest opening of the door,and in his own perversity he would open
that door again and again . The pain was married to the memory and
the memory he could not put by.In those times he had cursed God.
Why give such a gift, only to take it away again? He'd had a life. He'd
wanted for nothing. And now he knew nothing but want and pain, anger
and regret.

But the years had passed and there came a day when the door to the
room stayed shut on its own, when what lived inside no longer pushed
so hard to come out. He could go to the room and sit and be at peace.
Over time he came to feel that the gift was still his, that in fact he was
one of the lucky ones ,for he'd lived among so many men whose entire
lives had consisted of nothing but neverending wretchedness and
misery. Who'd lived and died--so many had died!"without ever having
known the love of one single soul. Not wife nor sweetheart, nor even a
mother and father. Never to know the sweetness of pure love, that was
the true curse, and he knew he had been blessed, blessed to have
had that love, and even more, to have seen his own precious child
come into this world.

James Robert Matthews was born nine months to the day after his
parents marriage, a fact which set the old women of the village to
mumbling and counting on their fingers. To Jemmy and Molly it was a
happy miracle, divine confirmation of the rightness and perfection of
their love.

" I have to tell you something." Molly had said. She sat down opposite
him at the crude little table. She'd just set his supper before him, a
bowl of thick vegetable stew, a loaf of brown bread. The food smelled
good. Molly could make the poorest fare taste delicious, somehow. But
he was so tired. It was winter, and cold, and he often worked 'til past
dark at the Squire's farm. He did not much care for the work, tending
livestock, but the farm was prosperous, the wages steady and fair. He
hoped one day to take up a trade and be his own man. He had been
learning coppersmithing aboard"Zebedee" before he'd left her and
liked it well enough. They'd need to move nearer the town, though.
Molly was reluctant to leave her parents, and rumors of the Press in the
port cities, looking to scoop up unwitting seamen ,made her nervous.

He had his face in his hands, and he was fighting the urge to just
drop his head to the table and go to sleep right there.

"Jem."

Her tone was serious. He lowered his hands and looked at her.
The light was dim, with only the fire in the hearth, for candles were
dear. Still, he thought he saw the sparkle of tears in her eyes.
"Moll, what is it?" he asked, feeling suddenly afraid.

She said nothing for a moment. Then,"Do you wish you had gone
back to sea?"

"What?" He was confused.

" You hate having to work on the land. It's me that keeping you here.
Do you wish you could go back to sea.?"

He blinked in surprise." Molly, no! What's the matter with you? Why
would you ask such a thing? Do I not tell ye every blessed day what ye
are to me?"

She lowered her eyes. Dropped her hands into her lap." Oh, I'm
sorry, Jem! I don't know why I said that! My feelings are so strange right
now! I'm on the edge of weeping all the time!" Now the tears were
rolling down her cheeks. He looked at her, stunned."Why just
yesterday the cat brought in a dead bird, its poor little neck was broken,
and I picked it up held it in my lap and sobbed as though my heart
would break!" She swiped at her face with the backs of her hands and
sniffed, then looking over to see his stricken face,suddenly began to
laugh.

"Oh, poor Jem! You think your wife's gone mad!" She got up and went
to his side, kneeling down beside his chair. He turned to her, and her
arms went 'round his waist, and she raised her tear stained face to
look at him." I don't know what's the matter with me, but Mama thinks
she does."


As he stroked her hair, his hand was shaking," Are ye unwell?" he
asked quietly.

" Mama says it's a little too early to know, but the signs are all
there - " She smiled up at him, and in the firelight her face glowed."
Oh, I hope its true!" She cried,"Think, Jemmy! How wonderful for us to
have a child!"

*****
Lying together in bed that night, his arms around her, her head
nestled in the crook of his shoulder, he was all but asleep when he felt
her hands on him, caressing him, working in slow circles over his
belly, sliding over his hipbones, going lower. He moaned, feeling
himself respond to her touch, in spite of his exhaustion. Her hand was
on him and he rolled her onto her back, kissed her open mouth as her
arms slid 'round his back. She was open to him, her breath already
coming in ragged gasps as she kneaded him with her hands. It was
all he could do, at the very last moment, to raise himself up on his
hands and ask, panting,"Can we still - ?"

" It's the very best thing for it!" She whispered, pulling him back down.

 


*****

The baby came in the middle of the night, and in the middle of a
terrific rainstorm. Jemmy wanted to go for Molly's mother, as had been
the plan, but she would not let him go.

"Sweet'eart, there's lots of time," he tried to reassure her,"Yer mam
says the first one takes ferever to come!"

"Nooo!" She screamed at him, making his heartbeat falter."Don't you
leave me!" She gripped his hand so tightly he felt she would crush the
bones. He felt panicky, did not know the right thing to do. He made her
a pallet on the floor in front of the fire, and so it was just the two of them
through what he believed was the longest night of his life. He had
never felt so helpless or so terrified. Not ever, before or after. Later,
he'd been astonished to hear other women remark to Molly how
fortunate she was to have had such an easy time of it and over so
quickly!

Some twenty years later, and a world away, imprisoned in a fortress
in Spain, the memory of that night had returned. The lad was fretting
over that Duchess, anxious that she seemed so willing to risk her life,
to involve herself in what he believed to be the business of men. The
boy was tying himself in knots. He wanted to protect her. Jemmy could
not remember the exact words he had said to Hornblower, but he had
tried to tell the lad that he was wrong to think a woman didn't have a
warrior's heart. A woman fought her battles, and made her sacrifices,
in pain and in blood, risked death many times over, to bring life into the
world. He wondered if men could ever comprehend the sacrifice, and if
they could, would they be so wanton in the destruction of that sacred
life? He had as much respect for a woman's courage as he had for any
man who'd ever stood beside a gun while an enemy fired broadsides
into the very ports. He knew not whether he had conveyed his meaning.
Maybe one day, the boy would see the woman he loved fight that battle,
and remember what an old man had once told him.

*****

Morning came, the rain was gone, and Robbie was there, an
impossibly tiny and very pink creature with a slightly damp cap of
downy blonde fuzz, snoring in his mother's arms. Molly slept at last,
and he was finally able to run for Molly's mother, and the midwife, who
came and fussed and cleaned and saw that all was well.

He sat beside the bed, touched the baby's tiny, wrinkled palm with
his little finger, and gasped in surprise when the little fist closed tightly
around it. He looked at Molly. Did she see? She smiled, reached up to
stroke his cheek.

"Brave man." She said.

He rubbed his face against her hand." Dear God, Moll - if I'd only
known, I never - I would never - "
She raised an eyebrow."Never - what, Jem?" she teased,"Don't
make me laugh, now, everything hurts too much!"

"I'm sorry."

"No. Look at our boy!" She took his hand."You stayed with me. You
didn't leave. You were scared out of your wits and you didn't leave."

"No. Moll."

"Never leave me."

"No. I'll never leave you."

 

*****

Ironic that he could not remember the date of the worst day of his life.
Aboard a ship the days were recorded and measured with infinite care.
In watches, in hours, in the minutes of the chronometer, the turn of a
glass. But on the land, time defined itself in broader terms, from dark to
light and season to season. The seasons of his life with his wife and
son had seemed to flow together in an endless stream, marked only
by the moments of joy they instinctively knew they must remember
forever, thinking"Yes, this. This is the time. When we are old we will
remember this."

It was late Spring, 1775, but the month, the day, he could not tell.
Robbie was barely a year old. He and another man from the farm,
called Samuel, had been sent to the town by their employer with an
oxcart of vegetables and grain, and a dozen head of cattle to be sold to
the ship's provisioners in Hull. He had made the trip many times,
before. Two days going, and two days back, and Squire Willoughby
gave them money for their bed and food, but Jemmy would always
spend the night in the cart, saving back the coin to buy something for
Molly and Rob.

He'd been blissfully ignorant, on that nameless day. Had not known
that a war had begun, that a"Hot Press" was on in the ports, that
informers were being paid 20 shillings a head for seamen given up to
the Gangs. Innocent, until, out of the corner of his eye he'd seen the five
men standing outside the window of the tavern where he and Samuel
were drinking. They looked hard, restive. A man was at his back. Too
close. He tried to turn, to look into the face.

"Matthews," The voice." Yer wantin' to volunteer fer the King's service
then." It said, laying a hand on him.

He was calm."Ye've got the wrong man, mate. I'm a landman." The
Squire had told him that farm laborers were exempt from the Press.
For all the good that would do him, he thought wryly. He'd no papers,
no proof.

"I know who ye are, lad," said the man," Come on, then. Ye've took
the King's shilling. We'll be on our way." His huge hand rested lightly
on Jemmy's shoulder, and yet he could he could feel the power of the
man. Unthinking, he slid his own hand into his pocket and felt it , the
cool, solid, round shape. He pulled out his hand, and looked,
disbelieving at the grimy coin that lay on his palm.

"Yer wantin' money, then." They had some twenty pounds of the
Squire's in the pouch that Samuel was wearing under his clothes. But
Samuel was gone. Jemmy swallowed hard. He knew his options were
few. He was an able seaman. A seasoned topman. What any Captain
would call the"cream". They were not going to let him go. Even if he
could get away from this one, there were still the five outside. He
needed to stay calm. He'd be doing Molly no good getting himself killed
or damaged by these brutes. Perhaps it was best to go along.
Opportunities might arise.

As they exited the tavern, his head was low, and the words escaped
him, without his really meaning to say them:"My wife - "

"Yer wife can draw yer pay, lad. Don't worry. Ye'll see 'er again when
the war's over."

 

July, 1775
My Own Dear Molly,

How I pray to God that this letter is not the first you've heard of whats
become of me. Then you will know that I was taken by the Press in
Hull. How sorry I am that it has taken so long for me to get this word to
you, Moll. Please believe that I could not help it. Young Mr. Bainbridge
has been so kind as to help me to write to you. He is a good lad, and
too has promised to help me to learn to read and write on my own.
The Gang did come looking for me in particular, and so I wonder did
not that Samuel give me up to them? Then, could have been some
one that knew me before, as well. I suppose it does not bear thinking
about, as it hardly matters, as here I am.
They put us on a tender, and then straight to Portsmouth where I was
sent on board the"Proteus" of 20 guns, under Captain Robinson .It is
to that ship that you must send a letter to me, if only so my mind can
rest and know that you have learned my news. I have been rated as an
able seaman, and so my pay, though not much, is the most that can be
hoped for. You must see that Joseph or Daniel goes to draw it for you
regularly. I know that you will go to see my Mam and tell her that I am
well, for so I am, at least in my body. My heart is sick for leaving you ,
Molly, as I promised I never would.
We are bound for New York, with ordnance stores and one hundred
men to man the floating batteries on Lake Champlain. Life on board a
warship is different than on a merchantman, and I have to say that I will
never like it as well. So many of the men being pressed, and as they
are miserable and unwilling, there is a lot of hard treatment that goes
on. I will tell you , dear, for your sake I will do my best to keep my nose
clean and stay out of that kind of trouble. I am fortunate that I know how
to behave, and so can settle in easier than some.
Each morning we have practice at the guns, which is something new
for me to learn. I don't know if we will see any action, but I think a great
many of us would rejoice in it, for there are others like me who wish for
nothing but to be able to return to their homes, and as we will not be
free until this war is ended, we know of no other way to do it except by
defeating the enemy."The hotter war, the sooner peace" is the saying.
How is my little man? You must kiss him every day for his old dad
and tell him how much I do love him. You must make him know that I
never meant to leave.
I must finish now, as they are piping us on deck. Please be well, dear
Molly, and know that I am always your loving husband,

Jem


1 December 1776

My Own Dear Molly,

You will see at last you have a letter that is written all in my own hand,
and without poor Mr. Bainbridge having to watch me over my shoulder.
He says I have done very well to learn to read and write so fast, as it is
always more difficult to learn as a grown man. I wonder how is your
study with Miss Pease? Fancy a day when we can write eachother our
true thoughts without regards to others that may see them! You see? I
feel a bit shy writing even that.
The war is not as I thought it would be, Molly. Maybe I should not
complain that no one is shooting at us, for above all I mean to come
home to you and Rob safe and whole. But its damned boring, going
back and forth across the bloody sea in convoy. Some weeks back we
took convoy for St. John's, Newfoundland, and met with very severe
weather. Our foremast was carried away, and when we arrived off St.
John's we were lying three weeks before the harbor and could not
make it on account of the ice that blocked its mouth. Three weeks and
we saw neither sun nor sky as the fog was so dense. Had it not been
for the fishermen blowing their horns to prevent us running them down,
we might as well have been in the middle of the ocean at night. You
could not see"Proteus's" bows from the quarterdeck. Its these times
that are the hardest for me, Moll because its too much time for thinking.
Because our ship has suffered damage( and she's a rotten old tub to
begin with, truth be told) the rumour is that this may be her last trip, and
that our crew of men will soon be dispersed to other ships. I will write
to tell you, if this be so, and to tell you the name of my new ship. I wish
that when I would see England again it would be to walk off this ship
and onto the shore and not to stop walking until I reach home, and see
you and our boy, and hold you both in my arms again. It pains me that I
can not see him grown and walking, or hear him say his words. I am
happy , though, to see you have written that he knows to say"Daddy",
now, when you show him the things I have sent. I wish that I could stay
awhile and fill up more paper with writing to you, for that is when I am
happiest and when I can feel close to you. I keep your letters in my
shirt, in a piece of old canvas to keep them safe from the spray. I read
them as much as I can. I have to go now, my sweet girl. I am always
your loving husband,

Jem

 

July 17, 1777

My Own Dear Molly,

I have your letter telling me that my Mam has passed. I am sorry that
I did not see her once more, but it is a comfort to me to know what a
good long life she did have and that you say she was not sick, but just
went to sleep and did not wake up again. I think that is the best that any
of us could ever hope for, to go to sleep in your own bed after a long ,
good life.
As you will have seen by my address , I am now aboard"Surprise" a
frigate of 28 guns. She is an improvement over the old"Proteus" and I
would say that our Captain Reeves is more keen than was poor old
Robinson. We are kept very busy, and that's a blessing, for you know
how down I will get if I am not. We have even been involved in some
action ,though I am sorry to say we did not give a very good account of
ourselves.We came to England with convoys and had a cruise in the
Channel, where we took the"Duke de Chartres," 18 gun ship, but then
were ourselves chased into Monts Bay, on the coast of Cornwall, by a
French sixty-four. We ran close in shore, and were covered by the old
fort, which some said had not fired a ball since the time of Oliver
Cromwell! But it did us allright, all night the Frenchman keeping up her
fire, the fort and the"Surprise" returning it. At daybreak he sheered off
and we only suffered a little in our rigging. The only blood that was
shed on our side was an old fogie of the fort who was shot with his
own gun! So, so much for the glory of battle, but Moll, I will tell you it
gives me some hope to be back in our own waters and to at least see
an enemy. It gives me a feeling that there may be some purpose to all
this time that we've lost.
You will see this is a short letter for me, but as I said, they are
keeping us busy. We have a rendevous this afternoon with the mail
packet. Will I have a letter from my sweet love? I will send yours, at
least, in hopes of an answer soon. Kiss my boy for me. When this war
is over, I will still be your loving husband,
Jem

The American War lasted six more years, and"Surprise" did
ultimately aquit herself well in action. He would always remember, in
particular, when they took The"Jason" of Boston, commanded by the
famous Captain Manly, who had been taken prisoner and broke his
parole. When Captain Reeves hailed him to strike he answered,"Fire
away! I have as many guns as you!" The battle concluded famously
when the Irish gunners aboard"Surprise" were inspired to fire the
cooper's anvil into"Jason" ,holing her finally. When Manly came on
board the"Surprise" to deliver his sword to Captain Reeves, half the
rim of his hat was shot off." I wish to God it had been my head," Manly
had said. That was their most memorable action, though there were
numerous others, mostly against privateers interfering with the
convoys that they continued to escort back and forth across the Atlantic,
with an occasional diversion to the West Indies.
When at last , in '83, it began to look as if the War was coming to an
end, Jemmy finally allowed himself to believe that he would soon be
going home.

As cruel as Fate had ever been to him before, he would never have
believed that it could have dealt him a still worse blow. But when his
ship paid off in Portsmouth in March of '83, Fate was waiting for him, in
the form of a letter, written in a hand he had not seen in quite some
years.

4
February,1783

Dear Mr. Matthews,

I do not know where this letter will find you as we are told the situation
with Navy ships is very uncertain at this time. I am informed that
Portsmouth is your ship's home port, however, and I have expressed to
those in responsibility that this is an urgent missive. I can only hope
that this reaches you in a timely manner.
Mr. Matthews,I do not know how to begin, and yet I must. I am deeply
grieved to have to tell you that your dear wife, and my sweet friend, Molly
Matthews, has died. Forgive me, I do not know what words one could
ever use to soften a sentence such as I have just had to write. You will
want to know how, and all I can say is that the influenza, which does
not normally carry off healthy young people such as she, became set in
her chest and she grew very weak and unable to breathe easily. The
doctor called it pneumonia and try as he might he could not save her.
She had been tending to the sick herself these many weeks past, as
many in the village had been stricken, and I can only think that she did
not think enough of herself and allowed herself to run down to the point
where the illness could overcome her.
My dear sir, please allow me to convey my deepest sorrow for your
loss. I too, have lost a treasured friend, for you know she and I became
very close in the time I was teaching her to read, so that she could have
your letters all to herself! Do you remember? She loved you so, dear
James. But you know.
Let me assure you that your son, James Robert, is well and in the
care of your wife's parents. He naturally grieves for his mother. I do
hope that you will be together with him soon, as he will most certainly
need his father, as I'm sure you will wish for the comfort of your child.
Again, I cannot tell you enough how very sorry I am. If there is anything
that I or my family can do to be of help, you have only to say a word.
Yours in deepest sympathy,
Katherine Jane Pease

*****

Three weeks later, grief-stricken and exhausted, he made his way at
last to the home of Molly's parents. Her mother was standing in the
doorway as he approached the house, and as he came closer he
noted, with a fresh stab of pain, the resemblance to that beloved face.

"Oh, Jemmy," she was saying.What was she saying?" Oh, my dear,
he is gone! Our boy has gone!"

He listened, struggling to understand." Since he was small - .swore
he was bound to go to sea - like his father - John and Lizzie's
boy - your brothers and John took after - must not have used their own
names - "

He had started back out the door, made it only as far as the step,
sank down, defeated and numb. Tired. A movement at the corner of his
eye. Looking down, there was old Wilf, Molly's dog, watching him. He
scooped the little body into his arms, stroked the rough, wiry coat, the
grayed old head."Poor old boy," he crooned,"oh, ye poor old man."

 

*****

Matthews closed the old book and laid it gently back down on the
table. He looked out through the door of the shop, over the rooftops and
down to the bay. He could see"Retribution" at rest at her mooring,
gleaming in her new paint, her yards crossed. The little shopkeeper
shrugged as he left without a word, and began walking, back to the
boats.

The lad , the Captain, was there, and Matthews noticed for the first
time the bullioned epaulet upon the left shoulder of his blue coat. It
was well. This boy, so close in age to the son he had lost and never
found again, not for all the years of trying, this boy, whom he loved and
trusted, he would serve and protect with his own life so long as God
would allow it.

*****

 

Lying in his hammock that night, listening to the familiar, soothing
sounds of a ship at anchor: the slap, slap of water against the hull, a
bell, the creaking of the boards, the sound of other men's breathing- he
thought again of the book, and imagined that in his own mind, he had
such a book, and when he wished it, he could turn the pages and see
once more, all the days, all the days -

Not many pages left to turn. A fine ship, a good captain, a couple of
decent mates that would see things done right when the time came.
That was a life for a man such as he. A man such as any that ever took
the King's shilling.

 

The End