...It took some time to bring all the prisoners to shore. Isabella was close to fainting with the heat before the final boatload was set down.
At a signal from one of the officials a gentleman came out of a building. Moving with stiff precision to the centre of the dockyard, he stopped, then wiped his face on a white kerchief as he cast his eyes along the row of women. Unsmiling, he announced, "On behalf of Governor Macquarie I welcome you to New South Wales."
"God bless me, if he don't sound like 'e's really glad to see us who've come from the other side of the world at the King's pleasure." Gracie chuckled. "Nice of Governor Macquarie to send one of 'is codgers to make sure we're all 'appy to be 'ere."
"Yes, happy as larks," Isabella retorted in a sharp whisper.
"As you know," the man went on, "you have been allocated quarters or assigned masters. These good men," he gave the officials a stiff smile, "have spent many hours taking your particulars to ensure that everyone goes to an appropriate place of employment. You will show your allegiance to these masters. If you work hard to prove you're of some worth to the new colony you will earn your freedom as many others have before you." Obviously bored, he ran his eyes along the row of sweltering women. "Many of you will be in far better positions than you would ever have hoped to attain in England." He turned and strode back into the building.
Isabella blew upwards in an effort to cool herself. She'd only taken in half of what that man had said. She was a prisoner, for all his fancy words. Still, in the long run, better to work here, hopefully in some nob's kitchen, than to rot in a prison back home. Or face the hangman's noose.
Home? It was so far away and so far removed from where she stood now, that it seemed as if the years before she'd been arrested had been lived by another person. But for all their poverty she'd always known what it was to be a part of a close, loving family. Oh how she missed her ma, and her brothers and sisters.
Isabella ignored the leering looks they received from men scurrying to off-load cargo. Her legs felt as if they would give out on her at any moment. Her bad foot with its crooked toes was aching fiercely and she began to sway.
At last they were herded to where a stern government clerk sat at a table, a ledger in front of him and a pen in his hand.
Gracie poked Isabella in the back. "I 'ope I get a strong 'ansome master," she said with a chuckle. "Like that one with the gold 'air over there. Look at 'im. Lord, 'e'd do me fine. 'E's been staring 'ard at us since we came ashore. Stands out from the other lot like a boil on yer nose, don't 'e? Rather a dandy, I don't mind saying so. I'll warm 'is bed any time 'e likes."
"Can't say I noticed him," Isabella lied.
"Oh no, suddenly you're blind, eh?"
"One member of the gentry's the same as the other. They can all rot in hell." Isabella shuddered. She detested them all, with their fine clothes, finicky manners, and hearts as cold as stone.
"You may sit on the ground, ladies." The officer in charge gave the order, then smirked as he marched away.
"Cripes, why didn't they tell us that before?" Gracie sank with a huge sigh onto her ample bottom. The others followed her.
* * *
Tiger Carstairs removed his hat, then ran his fingers through his sweat-dampened hair. Smiling grimly he pushed the hat back on as he turned his back on the bedraggled lines of women.
What a bunch. They didn't get any better. Still, one female had caught his eye. She was a bit short on flesh to cover her bones, but there was a light of defiance in her eyes that the dreadful journey with all its degradation hadn't snuffed. She'd stared right at him from eyes as green as the sea as she'd limped past, her spine straight as a broomstick. He liked that.
Yes, she'd do perfectly.
She was young, if not very hearty. Thelma had told him to keep his eye out for one who didn't look as if she'd be off in a flash with any man who showed up at the back door. This one hated men, if that glower she'd given him was anything to go by. So blatant was her scorn he'd fully expected her to spit in someone's eye. The sunshine had picked up glints in hair that would probably be reddish-brown after a good washing. But the wench had really taken his fancy, stirred some deep emotion in him. It was an unnerving sensation, peculiar in its uniqueness.
"Ho, Tiger Carstairs, after a new woman to warm your bed?" called one of the other men who'd come to inspect the new arrivals.
Tiger eyed the man coldly. Half of these poor dregs of humanity would end up as bed-warmers for this lot. Still and all, most of the females who'd landed today had whored in London and on the journey over, so the new life in the colony would hold no surprises for them.
"No, Mackenzie. Believe it or not, some of us are merely looking for women capable of keeping our homes clean and our stomachs full." Tiger looked away, watching the hustle and bustle of unloading.
Mackenzie's laughter was coarse as he walked away. Probably rum-soaked as usual. Tiger sauntered over to the table where Gregson sat with his list of assignments.
"The wench there with the cropped red hair, who's to take her?" he asked indolently. "I'd like her."
"Have to wait your turn, Carstairs. She's been assigned. I have your woman already noted. Let me see..." Gregson ran a finger down his list, then said, "Ah, yes, you have been allocated one Moira Paine."
"I don't want one Moira Paine unless it's that wench." Tiger pointed to the red-haired girl. She was staring at her feet, looking for all the world as if she was unaware of what was going on around her. Or had cut herself off from it all.
Gregson peered along the line to the woman in question. "What would you want with a scrawny wench like that, eh?" He shrugged. "Mind you, she has the makings of a beauty, I suppose."
"I care not for looks, old chap." Tiger knew he lied. "My kitchen woman needs a girl to help. This one looks capable."
"Oh aye." Gregson chuckled. "She does look capable enough." He leered, and Tiger hid a grimace of disgust. These men all had one thought in mind where women were concerned, and that was having them on their backs with their legs spread. "Hold on, old man, we're about to start allocating now."
Tiger eyed Gregson with annoyance. With a look along the line he saw that the wench in question still stared at her feet. His heart gave a strange lurch, unsettling him.
* * *