“Why are you hoisting the Union Jack?” John Dean called to the captain on the bridge. Their American ship had been sailing in British waters off the coast of Newfoundland several days already without any flag flying.
The captain spun around and glared at John. “What are you doing on deck? I have given orders that all passengers are to be below.” He turned to a passing midshipman. “Escort Mr. Dean and his wife below,” he called. Then he turned away without further response.
The midshipman led John and his wife to the hatch as if they were ignorant of the route after thirty-two days at sea.
John repeated his question to the man, who looked about before answering.
“We have spotted a British ship,” he said, “and the captain hopes to slip by unnoticed. Our last voyage home, we were boarded by the British in these waters. They impressed half the crew and some of the passengers also.”
John stopped abruptly at the hatch. Eighteen years before, during the American Revolution, he had been pressed onto a British ship at Leith. It had not been a pleasant experience. Of course, he was too old for the ordeal to be repeated now, but two of his sons were of an age to interest the navy.
His wife Susan took his hand. “Are you all right, John?”
“Aye,” he said again. She seemed to know what he was thinking. “Let’s go down and find the boys, shall we?” He was of a sudden anxious to be below with his family.
“They will be all right,” she said, and he wanted to believe her. After all, she was the one who had saved him before. She had rescued him from a life at sea. She had married him and given him eight children, five of whom were hearty boys.
In the hold, the stench of a hundred unwashed bodies, which had become commonplace, was now heightened by the sense of fear that had settled on the passengers. The Deans quickly found the space that had become their family’s home on this long voyage.
Eleanor was there, swinging the young twins in the cot, with Susie at her side, begging for her turn. John began mentally counting the boys seated on the floor. James, Johnny, David . . .
“Where is Will?” he asked.
Before anyone had the opportunity to respond, Susan was already beyond their family circle, calling her son’s name repeatedly. John fought his own panic, frightened by the sound of his wife’s voice. He patiently questioned the boys about the last time they had seen their brother William.
His oldest son James said at last, “I think you should look to Mama.”
John stopped his questioning and listened. She was arguing with some of the other passengers, who were trying to quiet her.
“Hush, madam. The captain asked us to be quiet.”
“Yes. We want to hear what is happening above.”
“But my son, my son.” She broke down, weeping.
John rushed to her side. “Come, madam. This will do no good.” He led her back to the family.
“Will is not below, John. Go back on deck and look for him. You must fetch him before there is trouble.”
It was already too late. A great roar shook the ship, causing everyone to gasp aloud.
“What was that?” Eleanor whispered.
“Cannon,” her brother Johnny replied.
There was a hush of fear as everyone strained to hear what was happening above them. Suddenly, the ship jerked and swayed.
Susan staggered and clutched the family chest to steady herself. The twins’ rope cot swayed wildly and little Esther started to cry. Susan picked her up to comfort her. Susie, who had fallen on the floor, crawled to her father, who lifted her to his lap. Susan could see his lips moving and knew he was praying. Charlie, the other twin, started to whimper, and Eleanor reached out to comfort him. Thank God for Eleanor, who at fifteen was already a reliable young woman.
Above their heads, they heard the sound of boots scuffling on the deck and loud, strange voices. The British had boarded the ship.
John and Susan exchanged glances. She knew his fear. Her own bowels felt as if they had turned to half-frozen liquid. Her heart was slamming against her chest, her ears rang, and her vision blurred. She thought she would faint, so she sat on the family chest and fought the feeling. John sat beside her. They would hold each other up. They would get through this together.
She listened to the sounds above, trying to ignore the questions in her mind. Where was Will? Would the British find him? Would they impress him if they did? Surely not! He was only twelve, just a little boy. But she knew boys younger than he were already in the service. She banished the thought. No, they could not take her son. She would not let them.
Had she not rescued her John years before when she herself was only sixteen? Dressed as a boy, she had bought him back for the price of a sapphire brooch that had been a wedding gift from her father when she was supposed to marry someone else. It was the last piece of anything that she had owned from her old life as a gentleman’s daughter. What did she have to rescue her son with now? There was nothing of any value. Everything they owned was in the chest that they were at this moment sitting upon, sundry clothes and everyday household items. Almost all the money that they had saved in the last five years in Belfast by dint of hard work had been spent to buy their passage to New York. Susan had no more jewellery.
But it did not matter. She would not let her son fall into enemy hands. She would fight with her last breath. She would rather die.
What about her other sons? She looked at sixteen-year-old James, trying to see him from the vantage point of a stranger. She wondered if he looked like a man. Her eyes refused to see him other than as he was in her heart—her first baby. She wanted to embrace him, but as she was holding Esther, she settled for kissing the top of his head. He turned to her and smiled.
When she looked at her second son Johnny, he shook his head to discourage her. She would have admired his fourteen-year-old bluster, but she wished that he would stay a child for his own safety.
Ten-year-old Davy, sitting on the other side of her husband, looked frightened, so she nudged John. “Dinna be afraid, Davy. Your mama and papa will protect you,” he whispered, at her urging.
The movement of the ship changed from wobbling side to side to the more familiar forward thrust. They had resumed sailing.
“Why did the British not come below deck, do you think, John?” Susan asked.
“Perhaps the captain paid them off.”
“Let us hope so. But why have they not come to open the hold and let us out if we are safe?”
“I dinna ken. Perhaps they want to be well out of sight of the British ship,” he said, uncertainly.
“I did not hear the British leave, did you?”
John shook his head.
Still, they waited anxiously.
It seemed as if an hour had passed. Surely they were out of sight now. Susan could stand it no longer. “Go above deck and find out where Will is, or I shall die.”
He went up the steep stairway in spite of the calls of the other passengers attempting to dissuade him.
He pushed the hatch with his hand. It did not move, so he used his shoulder against it.
“It willna budge. Perhaps it is locked.”
Susan called back, “Strike it. Someone will open it.”
“No,” was the universal cry of the other passengers.
John ignored them.
He banged on the hatch, his heart pounding hard with each stroke.
“The British have not gone or we would have been released,” someone shouted. “You will have us all in danger.”
If the British had not gone, they were in danger regardless. He continued hammering with his fist.
Suddenly, above him, the hatch opened and he almost lost his balance as the light streamed into the hold.
“What is that racket?” A voice commanded, “Descend immediately.”
“I am looking for my son, sir.”
“What makes you think we have him?”
“He is not below.”
“What is his name?”
“All right. We shall look for him. Go below,” the sailor bellowed, before slamming the hatch.
John scrambled down, his heart still hammering.
“’Tis the British,” he whispered to his wife. “They hae taken over the ship.”
“Who was it?” someone cried. “I did not recognize the voice. Was he British?”
John would not answer them. He was drowning in his own fear. Had he betrayed his own sons? Would they all be British sailors by this time tomorrow?
Another long period of sweaty, whispered anger passed before the hatch opened again. Then a British officer descended and stopped halfway down the steps.
“’Tis a lieutenant,” Johnny whispered. “White piping and stand-up collar.”
The lieutenant addressed them from the stairs. “We have taken possession of this ship and its destination is now the port of Halifax.”
There was a great outcry.
“Anyone who does not approve of our present destination may join your former captain under house arrest. Otherwise, rejoice that you will continue to live under a British flag when you are welcomed to Halifax.”
Susan could hear the grumbling of the passengers around her. “If we had wanted to stay under British rule, we would not have left Ireland,” the man next to her murmured.
The lieutenant started to ascend the staircase.
John mustered the courage to call out for the sake of his son. “Sir!”
“Yes?” The lieutenant stopped. “What is it?’
“Have you found my son William Dean yet?”
The lieutenant called above. “Come on down, boy. Your papa is waiting for you.”
Susan cried out and ran to the bottom of the stair-ladder.
Will descended the steps sheepishly and the lieutenant scooped him like a gunnysack
and handed him down to Susan. He struggled to be released from the indignity of his mother’s embrace. Then he ran to the family circle with his mother a step behind.
“Look after him better in future,” the lieutenant warned, as he resumed his ascent and secured the hatch behind him.
When William was finally safe in the family fold, John cuffed his ear.
Susan pulled him away. “Not now, John,” she said.
“I am not finished,” he said sternly, pulling him back by the collar. “How dare you give your mother and me such a fright? Explain yourself, young man, or I shall whip you within an inch of your life.”
“I shall explain if you leave off beating me.”
“Dinna sass me, Will. Speak plainly.”
Will began his explanation, tentatively at first, but gaining momentum as his listeners gathered round and became absorbed in the tale. Distant families came closer and soon he was the centre of a widening circle of listeners.
“When I heard that a British ship was coming, I thought that there might be a great sea battle, and I wanted to see it. I did not want to be locked below like cargo and not know what was happening, so I climbed into the ship’s boat. Then I lifted the tarpaulin that covered it just enough so that I could see out.”
“What did you see?” his brother Johnny asked eagerly.
“Not much, at first. But then I heard the great crash of cannon. You must have heard it too. So I thought, zounds, there’ll be a good show yet.”
“Watch your language.” His father scowled at him.
Will scarcely heard him and continued his story. “The captain did not return fire, though. I suppose we are not a proper battleship, but still one would think he would have made more of an effort on behalf of the United States of America instead of just giving the ship over to the enemy.”
“What, and risk the lives of all his passengers! Dinna be daft, Will,” his father said.
Susan was relieved as well.
“But what did you see?” his brother John continued his jealous questioning.
“Well, the English lieutenant calls out ‘Heave to’ and our captain replies, ‘Aye, aye,’ like a mouse instead of a man. Then I waited an age for something to happen. I almost fell asleep in my boat. Finally a launch pulls up beside our ship and the English lieutenant, some sailors, and a dozen Royal Marines come aboard, muskets drawn. And I thought, this will be even better—hand-to-hand combat. But our captain orders his sailors to submit! Have you ever heard of such cowardice?”
Susan gave God thanks in her heart for it.
“If they didna exchange blows, they must have exchanged words. What did they say?”
“I did not hear everything, but the English lieutenant ordered every last man jack of the tars to be put in the launch that the English had come in. I was scared at that point. I thought they might find me whilst they searched the ship for sailors. And then I thought there were so many of them that they might require the boat that I was hiding in to transport them all. But no, they crowded them all into the launch and the English lieutenant sent them back with the Marines.
“Our captain then made a loud protest. ‘You have not left me one sailor to sail the ship!’ he cries.
“‘You do not understand, sir,’ the English lieutenant says. ‘I have not left you a ship to sail neither.’ Then he orders the captain and all the ship’s officers to be put under arrest.
“‘Why, this is piracy!’ cries our cowardly American captain.
“‘I think not, sir. You are flying a British flag. That makes this a British ship. So we are simply reclaiming it from the American pirates who have infested it.’
“‘Our captain replies, ‘This ship is an American ship, out of Wilmington, bound for New York with a cargo and some emigrants. You have no right . . .’
“Then I could hear no more because the English lieutenant had him hauled off. Serves him right for not fighting, I say.”
“So all the crew have been impressed,” Johnny said.
“The ship has been impressed as well,” James added.
“Pray God that you two will not be impressed before this is over,” their father said.
Susan blanched at the words.
“I wish I could go,” Will said. “’Twould be great fun to fight the French on a battleship.”
“Not another word from you,” his father said. “You have given your mother quite enough of a fright for one day. Now go and tell her that you are sorry for it, and then come and take your whipping like the man you seem to think you are.”
Susan thought she saw a glimpse of fear in Will’s eyes as she wrapped her arms around him while he mumbled an apology into her breast. She wished deep in her heart that he would not grow up so quickly, that he would stay with her just a little longer and be safe, that he would not want to run off to sea or to be a soldier. She thought of her own mischievous youth and the danger that she had run into herself when she was young and foolish. As you sow, so shall you reap. It was the way of things. Reluctantly, she gave Will over to her husband, hoping that this beating might save him from his own foolishness. No one had ever loved her enough to beat sense into her.
Afterwards, John said over the wailing of his son, “Dinna fash, my dear. All that transpires is God’s will.”
Was that meant to comfort her? How many times had she wondered what kind of God would allow this? But John believed in predestination. He and God were on intimate terms. Perhaps this voyage had from the beginning been a conspiracy between God and John against her own poor pitiful will. He had wantedto go to Nova Scotia, not New York, and he had won. Providence was laughing at her again.At the end of all rational thought, and with the sound of Will’s sobs ever present, she broke down and wept herself.
She wished that John would take the children away and leave her alone. But there was nowhere to go, and she suffered as her nerves broke down under the wondering eyes of all her family and the strangers just outside their circle.
“Why is Mama crying, Papa?” Susie asked.
“She is sad because we canna go to New York.”
“Where are we going, Papa?”
“To Halifax, little dear.”
“Oh.” Susie cuddled closer to her father and Susan could see writ clear on her face her mystification at her mother’s tears. One place was as good as another when you did not know either. Ah, to be a child curled up once again on her father’s lap, trusting and knowing that wherever she went, she had nothing to fear because her father would look after her.