tagRomanceBell Rock

Bell Rock

byoggbashan©

Copyright Oggbashan October 2017

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.


*************************************************

Clang!

Clang! Clang!

Clang!

How could I sleep with that irregularly tolling bell sounding every time I thought it had stopped? I peered at my watch. It was three thirty in the morning, late June, pitch black beyond my tent, and cold and raw outside. I snuggled back into my sleeping bag and tried to cover my ears to shut out the mournful bell.

I woke bleary-eyed hours after dawn. Automatically I cooked myself a breakfast and ate it before I was really aware that I was up and about. I couldn't hear that bell but the memory still clanged in my head.

I hadn't visited this part of South Wales before. Until last night I had been enjoying the area. It isn't an obvious tourist destination but the scenery and buildings were just as attractive as better known places but with less people. I was camping in a field behind the public house. My car was parked beside my tent.

I had intended to move on today but I was tempted to stay. Amanda, the landlord's daughter, had booked me in a few nights ago. They were quiet and I had time to talk to her once I had erected my tent. She was helping out while her mother was away visiting Amanda's grandmother. Amanda works in Bristol a few miles from me but had taken a few days off. I'd like to see more of Amanda. I might stay as long as she does.

I washed up and left for a refreshing walk to the sea nearly a mile away and along the coastal path. When I reached the sea the tide was ebbing down the Bristol Channel. The tides here are dangerous, running fast either way, and very easy to misjudge. Today I would stay on the path at the top of the cliffs except where small streams trickled down valleys far too large for them.

I had nearly forgotten that irritating bell when I returned to my tent at dusk. I cleaned myself up and changed into more respectable clothing. Tonight the pub would provide my evening meal.

It was far too early when I entered the bar. The landlord was stacking clean glasses on shelves.

"Hello, Henry," he said. "Fed up with your own company? The meals don't start for a couple of hours yet."

"I know, Mr Jones" I said. "I want to have an early night. I was kept awake last night by a bell ringing somewhere."

The landlord looked at me as if he hadn't seen me before.

"What did it sound like?" He seemed genuinely concerned.

"A slow irregular clanging," I replied. "A deep note but irritatingly random. Every time I though it had stopped; it started again..."

"That'll be the bell buoy on Bell Rock then," Mr Jones said. He seemed relieved. Why?

"The bell buoy? What bell buoy? I haven't seen a bell buoy."

"You wouldn't. It isn't there anymore. It was removed in the 1960s when they modernised the buoy system for the Bristol Channel."

"Are you telling me that I heard the ghost of a bell buoy?"

"Yes. All of us hear it from time to time. It doesn't mean anything. It doesn't toll a message of doom. It just is."

"Why was there a bell buoy?"

"I'll tell you what, Henry. I'll lend you one of my books about this area. It has several chapters about the Bell Rock and the shipwrecks there. I have to get on before the dining room starts to fill. What are you drinking?"

"A pint of your local bitter, please."

"OK. I'll get the book then pull your pint." He turned towards the kitchen area. "Amanda? Can you take over for a minute or two?"

Amanda pulled my pint. Her father took longer than I had expected. Amanda and I discussed Bell Rock and the recent weather which had been unusually wet for late June.

When the Mr Jones returned, Amanda went back into the kitchen. The book was a modern paperback reprint of the original published in the 1960s. It was fairly thick with several pages of old photographs of the local coastline.

"Could I buy a copy of this locally?" I asked as I sipped my pint.

"I can sell you that one for eight pounds ninety-nine," he answered. "I have a stock of them. The author used to be a regular."

I paid for the book. I sat in a chair by the log fire and started to read. I continued over my meal. The landlord and Amanda were busy with the evening diners.

Bell Rock had originally been called Yns Iestyn after an anchorite who had his cell on what was then an island. In the fifteenth century, long after Iestyn had died, a storm swept the anchorite's cell and the top soil off the island. Over the years the sea had eroded the rest until the island became a heap of jagged rocks only visible at low water. The name changed to Iestyn's Rocks until the early nineteenth century when a prison transport hit them. The Esmeralda, bound for New South Wales with women sentenced to transportation, struck the rocks on a dark stormy September night after leaving Bristol, the Esmeralda's last port of call in England. Most of the crew and the women prisoners drowned. A few were saved. After that shipwreck the rocks were renamed 'Esmeralda Rocks'.

Within a year a public subscription had raised money for the rocks to be marked with a bell buoy that was anchored off the rocks while the wreck of the Esmeralda was still visible. Gradually the locals started referring to Esmeralda Rocks as Bell Rock because a superstition against mentioning the Esmeralda had grown. The book referred me to Chapter 11 for the details of the Esmeralda legend. I decided to leave Chapter 11 until later.

It was obvious I wouldn't have a chance to talk to Amanda tonight. Back inside my tent I poured myself another pint of the local bitter from a four-pint carryout jug. I continued reading and drinking until I fell asleep.

I had a dream. The third officer of the Esmeralda, Richard Jenkins, sat in my tent and began to tell me his version of the wreck.

"The Esmeralda was an unlucky ship even before I joined her at Gravesend," he started. "She had been stranded on Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary by her previous captain, an easy thing to do when the owners wanted fast passages whatever the weather. Two of the crew had been sent out into the fog to seek help. They were never seen again, unless you count their cries to their shipmates during the dog watches.

The government had chartered her to transport convicted women to Australia to provide servants and wives for the settlers and freed convicts. The Esmeralda waited at Gravesend for months but too few women were sentenced to transportation. Only half full we were ordered to sail to Chatham. In Chatham the magistrates convicted almost every woman who was brought before them to be transported on the Esmeralda, no matter how trivial her crime, or even if she was innocent. The same happened in Ramsgate, in Dover, in Portsmouth and Southampton.

The Esmeralda was becoming a political scandal so we were ordered to miss every other scheduled port except Bristol. There, women had been brought from courts all over the West Country. Once loaded we would have one hundred and twenty women prisoners, five female wardresses with a male warder officer, eighteen crew and three officers.

We were going to sail on the tide on the Monday morning but on Sunday afternoon there was a demonstration and near riot in Bristol, complaining that wives, daughters and sweethearts were being unjustly convicted to make up the Esmeralda's cargo. It was probably true. The local magistrates had to call out the militia to stop the rioters who were in the docks and very close to the Esmeralda. They ordered our captain to leave at once even though the tide wasn't ideal. We managed to clear Avonmouth just before dusk and set sail for the West, straight into a storm.

If everything had been as it should have been, we would have been able to claw our way down the Bristol Channel and out into the open sea. But the rioters had managed to pass some tools to the women prisoners. Ever since the first prisoners were brought on board at Gravesend, they had been preparing to break out of their confinement before we left English waters.

I and the Captain were off watch now that we were in the open channel. He and I had been on duty all day. I had fallen on my bunk fully dressed, too tired to change. The Mate and the quartermaster were in charge.

I don't know how to say this, but the Captain was not alone in his cabin. He had taken a mistress, Rose, from among the prisoners, and also provided himself with a maid called Abigail, Rose's younger sister. The Mate also had a mistress, Rose's sister Sarah. I was considered too young and anyway my berth was too small for such indulgences even if I could have been allowed them.

Rose plied the Captain with wine to celebrate leaving England and then they made love, again and again, until the Captain was insensible with wine and exhaustion. She bound and gagged him, lashed him to his bunk, took his keys, opened the arms chest and hid pistols under her dress. She roused Sarah and Abigail and armed them as well.

In the darkness on the quarterdeck Sarah distracted the Mate. The Mate was still trying to navigate the ship, impeded by Sarah's caresses until Rose dropped to her hands and knees behind him. Sarah pushed him backwards and all three women fell on him. Sarah smothered him with her skirt while the others tied him up.

The quartermaster was left at the wheel unaware that his officer was a helpless bundle behind him.

The three women crept to the door leading to the below deck cells. The warder was already drunk and the four women warders were asleep. Why shouldn't they be? They were out at sea and the women were locked in their cells for the night.

Sarah took the keys from the hook beside the warder and all three crept downwards. Quietly they released all the hundred plus women prisoners who made their way up to the warders' area. The warder and the women warders were overpowered, gagged and bound with long strips of cloth that the women had made on the voyage so far, and taken down to a cell to be locked in.

"What of the crew?" you might ask. What were they doing while the women captured the ship?

The quartermaster was faced by several women wielding pistols. When he protested that the ship was in danger he was told to keep quiet. He wouldn't, so he too was overpowered and tied in a bundle on the quarterdeck.

The crew were busy aloft, reefing the sails down against the increasing storm. Whatever was happening on deck wasn't important. A cannon shot might have alerted them but nothing less.

As each member of the crew regained the deck he was swamped by female bodies, gagged swiftly, carried below decks and lashed tightly into a hammock before the hammock was slung from the deck beams. Very soon all eighteen crew were silently struggling in their enveloping hammocks, helplessly swinging with the ship's movements.

I was still asleep while this was happening. I had slumped on my bunk fully clothed, too tired to even shed my shoes.

I was the women's last target. My cabin door burst open. I didn't have time to sit up before a woman's body slammed into me. Another woman pressed a folded cloth over my mouth while a third wrapped me inside my bedding with coils of thick cord. She had mummified me before I had a chance to struggle.

"Richard!" Rose hissed into my ear. "The ship is ours. Everyone else is captured. We want you to tell us what to do to get to a port in Wales or Ireland."

I shook my head as best I could within their grasping arms.

"You will!" Rose ordered. "Or this will suffer."

Her hand grabbed through the blanket over my sex and squeezed hard. I winced. I knew that she had been controlling my Captain by her sexual demands. Would I be her next victim?

"Bring him on deck," Rose ordered.

I was lifted and carried out to the ship's wheel. I was horrified to see it turning idly. The Bristol Channel in a storm is no place for a ship not under command. As far as I could through the women holding me I looked for any lights, loom of land or sea marks. There were none.

The cloth was lifted from my face.

"Well?" Rose asked. "Are you..."

"I'll do anything! " I retorted. "We're all in real danger. Now! This part of the Bristol Channel wrecks many ships and I don't know exactly where we are. We must get..."

"OK, Richard," Rose said calmly. "I get the message. Just get us out of here."

She signalled to the women holding me. They stood me up, cut the cords binding me inside the blanket and propped me against the ship's wheel.

"Can any of you see anything?" I asked desperately. "Anything, anywhere?"

The women went to the rails. I tried to bring the helm under control.

"Nothing."

The darkness, rain and wind blocked our view more than a few yards from the ship. I brought the ship's head around to West South West that ought to be a safe course. The sails flapped. I had to direct women to haul on lines to tighten the canvas so that we had steerage way. Gradually we began to move through the water under control.

"I can hear waves breaking!" came a shout from the bows. Rose ran forward and then rushed back to me.

"The waves are close on our right hand side..."

"Starboard bow," I corrected. I swung the wheel to turn to port. Then we struck hard on what I knew later were Iestyn's Rocks only slightly above the water. The foremast went over the bow on the first impact, taking some of the women with it.

I felt the ship's motion cease. We were hard and fast on those rocks, immovable. The sea was breaking against our port side but I thought we would be safe until the tide dropped and dawn came. I was wrong. I sent a woman to check the chronometer. It was nearly dawn. That meant that the tide was rising and still had a long way to come. The ship would try to float but I was sure she was too badly holed. Even if she did float off the rocks, she would sink in deeper water.

"Rose!" I shouted. "We need the crew -- now!"

She ran towards me.

"Why? We can't risk being recaptured!"

"We're on the rocks. The Esmeralda won't survive long. We have to launch the boats before the tide rises much further. You women can't do that in this weather. Even the crew will find it difficult, but we'll all drown if we don't leave soon."

Rose was faced with protests from some of the women but her orders were obeyed. All eighteen seamen, still bundled in their hammocks, were brought to the quarterdeck. The false dawn was just revealing shapes of the rigging.

"Untie them!" I ordered.

There was some hesitation. Rose nodded. The seamen and quartermaster were released. Quickly I explained our predicament and that we needed to abandon ship in the boats within the next quarter of an hour or we would sink with the Esmeralda. Any boats launched should head Northwards towards South Wales and ride with the rising tide until they reached a safe landing place -- if they could.

Rose split the women into groups for each of the larger boats. They could only be launched on the starboard side because the storm was beating on our port side. Three of the boats with most of the women and all the sailors were away quickly. They were swept up the Bristol Channel and soon out of our sight.

The other boats were being woman and manhandled across the deck from port to starboard. I was still standing ahead of the useless ship's wheel directing the movement of the boats. Rose and Sarah were standing either side of me. Both had pistols aimed at my body.

"What are you going to do about the warders and the officers?" I asked.

"Leave them!" Rose snorted.

"You can't do that," I retorted. "That would be murder. If caught, you would hang."

"He's right," Sarah said quietly. "We have to give them a chance to live."

Rose slumped her shoulders.

"How? We can't risk being recaptured."

"Release the ship's officers. Leave them a small boat and they can release the warders when we have left."

"We?" Rose asked. "Who are we?"

"If you are going to survive," I said calmly, "you need me. Getting a boat ashore in this storm isn't going to be easy. I think less than half of us will live to see the end of today. I intend to be one of them."

"Sarah?" Rose said. "Untie the two here and give them the keys of the cells just before we get in our boat with Richard."

Sarah handed her pistol to Rose. She untied the quartermaster and then the Mate. Rose was pointing one pistol at them as she explained, with my help, the situation we were in -- on the rocks, about to sink, with the Captain and warders confined below. The Mate understood that I was acting under duress.

The final large boat pulled away, leaving the two smaller boats. I and the three women took the smallest. Rose and Abigail were carrying two heavy bags which were a nuisance. Rose gave the keys to the Mate just before we cast off. We pulled a few yards clear of the ship and I let the tide take us up-channel. The mate and quartermaster disappeared from the deck. I never saw nor heard of them, nor the captain and warders again. Did they leave the Esmeralda? Or sink with her? I don't know.

I managed to raise the mast and a small triangle of sail. It was just enough to give us some steerage way, but the tide was so strong that all I could do was run with it. The storm wasn't as fierce but all of us were baling hard to keep ourselves afloat. The cliffs to the North were dangerous. Although there were small areas of beach it was obvious that those would soon be covered by the rising tide. We needed some land that would remain dry, or an inlet.

Eventually I spotted an opening beyond a headland. I yelled at the women to get the oars out and pull. I had to shout the rhythm many times before they started to work together. Once we were inshore of the headland the tide's effect lessened, as did the force of the wind. We grounded on a pebbly beach. We had very little energy left to pull the boat as far up the beach as possible.

There was a stone hut about fifty yards away well above the highest tide. Sarah went to see whether we could use it for shelter. She returned quickly.

"It's obviously disused but it has a chimney. We would be dry, out of this wind, and if we could start a fire..."

I felt in my coat pocket. My small tinder box was there.

"Lead on, Ladies," I said, "and I'll give you a fire."

As we stumbled along the beach we picked up pieces of driftwood. They were rain soaked but might burn if there was some dry fuel in the hut to start the fire.

There was. Some dry seaweed had blown in through the open door, and there was a small pile of wood, presumably left months ago by the hut's owner. We had a warm fire going within a quarter of an hour. Shortly afterwards a naked man and three naked women were attempting to dry their soaked clothing on lines already strung from the roof timbers.

I ought to have been aroused by naked young females. I was just too tired.

"We are ashore, in shelter, and drying off," Rose announced. "What now?"

"Water and food," I replied. "We've left both in the boat."

The women groaned.

"OK, Richard. You go and get it." Sarah said.

"No!" Rose shouted. "He could just disappear. We'll go and get it."

"That's what I was going to suggest," I said. "I couldn't carry it all."

We had put on some of our still damp clothing. I carried the water cask. The others carried the ship's biscuit boxes and the heavy bags.

As we approached the hut the wind began to increase and the rain started again. Once inside the rain was lashing the outside of the hut. We soaked some dry ship's biscuits in water for a basic meal. Despite the fire we were cold. The hut's door was facing the wind and an inadequate barrier. Rose ordered all of us into a huddle away from the draught from the door and as close to the fire as we could. I was swamped between naked female bodies. We were covered with nearly dry clothing. We tried to sleep because we were so tired.

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