“No! Get off me!” Bessie screamed as she ducked and wriggled her way free of her abusive husband's clutches.
The bar-room was in an uproar, a myriad of drunken sailors guffawed as Tobias Nelson dragged his wife from the room.
“If I've told yer once, I've told yer a thousand times about spillin' good beer when yer clearin' the damned tables!”
Bessie Nelson's eyes flashed wildly in the dim light of the lanterns hanging from brackets on the walls of the back-room of the Old Ship Inn. Her long, red hair flying free as her head snapped sideways in response to the impact of the back of Nelson's hand.
Bessie held her hand to her face. She knew it would bruise but it made no difference because no-one gave a damn about her. The sailors came to drink, they didn't care what happened to a mere serving wench.
As Landlord of one of the roughest public houses adjacent to Portsmouth docks, Tobias Nelson was a big, strong man who could carry a barrel of beer up from the cellar with ease. There wasn't a sailor yet who could better him in a fist fight.
Some months before, one giant of a man dared to try to slip his hand underneath her skirts as she was collecting the empties. Tobias saw him and grabbed him by the lapels, dragging him bodily from his seat.
“That's my wife,” he growled. “Nobody but me lays an 'and on 'er!”
The huge sailor drew himself up to his full height, a good six inches above Nelson.
“Yeah?” he replied gruffly. “What yer gonna do abaht it?”
Before he had a chance to react, Nelson brought his fist up sharply into the man's solar plexus with such force that the wind was knocked completely from his lungs. Gasping for breath, he fell to the floor and Nelson dragged him outside. The sailor was never seen again. Some said that the Landlord had thrown him into the harbour and his body had washed up on the beach several days later. Others said he was too embarrassed ever to return but, whatever the truth, no-one tried to get under Bessie's skirts again.
Bessie had been married to Tobias for little more than two years. Though he was twice her age, he had married her after he lost his first wife and unborn child to typhus which she had contracted from a foreign sailor. At first, he had been attentive to her but, as time went on and he drank more and more, he became violent and now, as she stood before him, her face stinging from the slap, she vowed to herself that enough was enough. She was leaving... tonight!
It was in the early hours of the morning by the time the last customer had left and all the pots had been collected. Having pushed the benches and tables to one side, she began to sweep the beer-soaked sawdust into a corner, ready to take outside.
“I'm going to bed!” her husband grunted. “Don't be long!”
“I won't,” she replied, knowing full well that he would be asleep within minutes.
She finished sweeping and left the sawdust in a pile by the door and then went upstairs. She didn't go into their room but put her ear to the rough-wood door. Tobias Nelson was sleeping like a baby.
“A pig, more like!” she thought as she tip-toed back downstairs and to the cellar. From beneath the cellar steps, she collected a sack of belongings which she had hidden earlier.
She remembered a conversation she had overheard in the tap-room, about a ship which would soon be leaving for a new land on the opposite side of the world. It seemed the ship would be taking settlers to a place called Sidney Town. She had decided right then and there that she would stow-away on that ship and go there to begin a new life for herself.
Outside, a thick fog had rolled in from the sea. The only sound she could hear was the gentle creaking of the ship's timbers as they gently moved against their moorings and the lapping of the water against their wooden hulls.
On the deck of one of the ships, she could see a small fire burning in a basket.
“That must be the one,” she thought.
There was only one way she could get aboard and that was the gangplank. She didn't have enough money to pay for her passage so she hoped that, if she was seen, she could bribe the sailor with the few shillings she had been able to save.
As luck would have it, no-one saw her and immediately, she headed for the only boat that she could see on the deck and carefully lifted the edge of its heavy canvas cover.
There was plenty of room inside and, after refitting the cover, made herself comfortable. She had no idea how long the voyage would take or what she would do once her meagre supply of food ran out but she reasoned that they wouldn't toss her overboard once the ship was at sea.
In her quiet solitude, Bessie had managed to snatch a few hours sleep and when she awoke she could feel that the ship was moving. It had set sail and, at long last, she would be free of her disgusting husband.
Very slowly, she lifted the edge of the canvas and peered out. All she could see was the sea. There was no going back now.
“'ere! What you doin' in there?”
Bessie's heart stopped as the boat-cover was pulled back and daylight flooded in. It was a young sailor who had discovered her.
She reached into her sack and pulled out the small cloth purse.
“Please don't tell anyone,” she begged. “I want to go to Sidney Town but I don't have much money.”
The young boy laughed.
“You'll go there for free if I tell the Cap'n about yer!” he grinned.
Bessie began to cry. “Please, Sir. I'll do anything you want but please don't turn me in.”
The boy rubbed his chin.
“Anything?” he asked.
“So, if I keep quiet, you'll take care o' my every need until the end of the voyage?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Whatever you want me to do.”
At last, the sailor nodded his agreement.
“All right, then. There is a cabin below what ain't used. It has a bed but no porthole. I'll take yer there come sundown. You take care o' me an' I'll take care o' you.”
The sailor was true to his word and, every day, he would go to her cabin with food and water and she, true to her word, would do for him, whatever he wished her to do.
With only a candle for light, she had no idea how long they had been at sea or, even, what time of day it was but suddenly, after what she thought must be several weeks, the cabin door flew open. It wasn't the young sailor who stood there but the Captain himself.
“What on earth are you doing in here?”
“Oh sir, please don't be angry. My name is Bessie Nelson. I am running away from my husband who beats me. I am trying to get to Sidney Town to begin a new life for myself.”
The Captain burst into peals of uncontrolled laughter.
“I know who you are, Madam. Your husband is the Inn Keeper at the Old Ship Inn and it will take you a long, long time to get to Australia on this ship. This is the Isle of Wight Ferry!”