Part 3 – Lieutenants
Chapter 1 – Sojourn at Greenwich
To the Notables who arrived in the new Greenwich College to study for their Sub Lieutenant navigation certificates, it soon became evident that the College was not to be primarily a source of intellectual life. Greenwich was much too exciting. It was in London with all its possibilities of entertainment and fun and relaxation at weekends. It contrasted favourably with the gunnery school, HMS Excellent, a ship establishment in Portsmouth harbour which they had just passed through successfully, but without pleasure. Now they could enjoy their own rooms in this beautiful old building with its delightful location by the river Thames.
‘Well, it will be alright when we can see something!’ said Fraser, looking out of the window.
‘Oh, it’ll be fine when the fog clears. Anyhow, it doesn’t matter when you’re inside watching a gaiety girl in the Alhambra or a good drama at the Aldwych.’ Polwhele had great plans for the three months ahead.
They had only just arrived, but already Bowen was measuring for floral curtains and coverings in his cabin and Hepplewhite was writing to his mother, ‘Have you any warm chintz knocking around. I want some to put round my bed and wash hand stand.’
These were the best cabins the new acting Sub Lieutenants had ever seen. Sebold opted for the socially hospitable: ‘You may send me some tea and sugar, mother…I shall have a select few to my kettledrums…’
Fitzpatrick. was looking forward to asserting a bit of authority, ‘I have not yet got settled in properly. My chest has come. My servant has not thought fit to get the things up but I have warned him to have them up by 4pm today or else look out for my stick (our servants are boys).’
Ephraim liked the intellectual atmosphere of the College; outside it gave the impression of walking through cloisters; inside, the warm, wood panelled interior of the rooms gave a luxurious mansion house effect. He might stretch his mind here. Fraser looked forward to meeting his father in the House and hoped he might attend debates. Mason hoped to visit the London City Mission and Gail planned some fishing in the river Thames with his cousin.
Lady Gail kept a perpetual house party going in her London mansion while her son was studying at Greenwich. She was as keen to promote his interest as her husband, and the Notables and their friends had a constant welcome at the elite Hyde Park house where Fraser felt himself nearer the reins of government in conversation with Lord Gail and his more eminent friends. The great advantage to Ephraim was the opportunity to re-acquaint himself with Emily Gail. She had rounded out in figure and looked wonderfully soft and desirable as he, a late responder to such elements, looked at her sitting opposite him in the local Coffee House. He noticed her blue crinoline matched her eyes. Or was it the other way round? A raised eyebrow from her sent the chaperone to another table.
Though she may have approved of the young Sub Lieutenant, Emily did not approve of his career, ‘War mongering’ she called it. She was interested in the new talk of ‘women’s rights’ and the ‘woman suffrage’ movement. She was familiar with the group which had started in America at Seneca Falls. She heard about them from her new sister-in- law who had come over from New York to marry brother George. She hoped to go there herself one day. Ephraim was not unaffected by her arguments. He was still being visited by recurring doubts about the nature of war and was open to the new thinking available to a believer these days. He was attracted to the liberal and reforming ethic of the new Unitarian church now that Parliament had relaxed laws against them. It behoved up and coming young men and women to give thoughts to these things. The old Testament God might sound like a warrior, ready to send all evildoers wrathfully and justly where they belonged – the final abyss of Hell – but what about Jesus? And what part of God was Jesus?
‘Yes,’ said Emily, ‘But whatever part, it was definitely peaceful…turn the other cheek…forgive seventy times seven.’ He loved the fact that she quoted from the Bible.
‘Of course, Emily, but one can still forgive and exact the dues of punishment in justice to the offender and the offended. That is what war is, justicia, just punishment as Sepulveda argued, just punishment in God’s will. And to fulfil justice, one needed power, the power of conquest.’
He and Emily were able to talk of these things. She was so keen and so bright. She could handle doubts without having to force conclusions. However, he was not going to let any of the other officers know of his doubts – apart from Seb of course, he could not keep it from Seb.
Sebold spent most of his time in London visiting his father and other influential Admiralty figures; one never knew how and where ‘interest’ might arrive. He enjoyed sitting in the prestigious and beautiful painted hall opposite the college, picking up useful information from any important or influential people who just happened to be visiting or lecturing. In its splendour, Sebold soaked up knowledge from lectures to gossip. Who were the coming Admirals, who was fighting whom, who was up and who was down? All grist to his mill. Ephraim joined him at the end of one lecture.
‘Have you noticed Fraser looks a bit grim today? He was talking with Wren and Halling. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some bad news. Think you should sound him out. He’ll take it better from you than me.’
At dinner that evening, in the wardroom, Sebold casually asked Fraser how he was?
‘Fine, of course.’
‘I thought you didn’t quite look yourself this morning,’ said Ephraim.
‘Oh, don’t be absurd!’
‘You didn’t eat any breakfast – and you know there is a bit of small pox going around.’
‘What rubbish!’ and Fraser helping himself to more trifle, ‘I don’t need you looking after me.’
The course only lasted three months and the time went by very quickly. Exams at the end would soon be looming, so it was decided that since the Notables were rarely going to have this opportunity to get together again, something should be done to mark departure. They would take one final weekend and spend it together at a chosen venue. These rituals must be kept up wherever possible. Gail offered his mother’s hospitality, but it was felt there would have to be some guarantee of good behaviour there, so they opted for a visit to a small tavern in the City which offered rooms and food.
‘Should be fun at the weekend – really looking forward to a break from all this sweating. Going to be lucky to get a third at this rate,’ Polwhele gave a rueful grin.
‘Make the most of it then because I am afraid I shan’t be there.’
‘What!? Not there !?’ Fraser was horrified.
‘You cannot, not be there? You and Ephraim were the founders. You were Trelawnys before we were Notables. What the hell is keeping you away?’
‘I have an appointment with the First Lord.’
‘You can’t have. He does not see Sub Lieuts, not even good ones who are nearly Lieutenants.’
‘Come on, Sebold, what’s up?’ Mason was puzzled.
‘The First Lord is spending the weekend with my father and my father wants me to be there.’
‘You can say no, man, fellows come first! Who wants to see an old First Lord!’ Polwhele was disgusted.
‘My father wants to see him, and he wants me to see him. I cannot refuse my father.’
‘Of course, you can – we all do. Can’t believe you would be such a renegade!’ Polwhele was certain that Sebold would come to his senses and that Ephraim and the others would share his point of view. But when he told Ephraim about it, Ephraim said nothing. He understood Sebold. He knew that Sebold had ambition; he kept it under his hat in an emollient ‘hail fellow, well met’ sort of way but he knew that with Seb, Seb came first. He could be a charming and disarming chap but Ephraim always sensed his undercutting ambition. And now it seemed to be getting worse, how could it not with a retired Baronet Admiral for uncle, and a father who was now Third Sea Lord and increasingly friends with the First Lord. Also, Ephraim had formed the impression that Sebold might be a little in fear, or at least awe, of his father.
Nevertheless, Polwhele was right, there were times when an officer’s duties were to his fellow officers not to his father. Ephraim went across to where he knew Sebold would be listening to a lecture in the Painted Hall. He waited for him to come out and collared him.
‘Seb, I’ve just heard some disquieting news. Polwhele says you are not coming to the weekend at the Tavern. How is that?’
‘Yes, sorry old man, father calls.’
‘I gather you mean the First Lord calls.’
‘Well, I can’t leave my father to manage things with his naval officer son not there now, can I? How discourteous and insulting that would look when it is obvious that I am not away on a posting but actually in London at the Greenwich college – besides Lord Page comes to the end of his position in May. I may not get the chance to meet a First Lord again.’
‘Seb, you do realise this may be the last time we are all together; the last time to remember Captain Sharp and the breakfast hash, the Fat Teapot and the turnpike biscuits, the Flying Squadron and the frightful Flint.’
‘The terrible Trenchard.’
‘In Briton, the fun we used to have outwitting Melrose. This might be the last time to realise that we are a band of brothers and all that it means in support wherever we are in the service.’
‘Oh, come on Browne, you are laying it on a bit thick. All very well for school boys and cadets but we have rather outgrown all that Trelawny stuff and swearing allegiance to each other.’
Ephraim could not believe it, Sebold was throwing dirt over the best that the Navy had to offer.
‘I hope you and I may never outgrow swearing allegiance to each other. Isn’t allegiance the mark of an officer, anyway, loyalty and his duty? What about your duty and loyalty to friends let alone fellow officers? Remember Nelson, ‘Duty is the Great Business of a Naval Officer’. ‘
‘Oh Browne, grow up! It is not allegiance we need from each other it is interest. My father got his interest from Lord Mintin, and I want mine from the First Lord as well as Admiral Baronet Bartlett. He could get me a posting on Undaunted if he wanted to and my father could make him want to. That is what allegiance means, not some schoolboy pact of friendship. It is interest we must share with each other. Who you know, what you know? Don’t pretend it is not ‘interest’ in your friendship with William and Lady Gail. Friendship will not save you, interest will. Doesn’t mean I stop liking you, doesn’t mean I don’t want to help you, just means your interest means more to my naval career than anything else. And sad to say, dear friend, you do not have much anyway,’ Sebold laughed.
Ephraim was shocked. There were so many sides to Sebold. This was one of them. Perhaps he was not called Ulysses for nothing.
‘Well, if you insist on leaving us alone for that weekend Sebold, I will never feel the same about you.’
‘Don’t think that will hurt me – some of us here are adults and don’t need to play these childish games.’
‘Then remember you will meet the rest of us as Admirals and think of the interest you will want then!’
The absence of Sebold cast a damper on festivities at the Tavern. They had not realised how essential he was to the dynamic of the Notables. It was like being in a building with the cornerstone missing, thought Ephraim and then regretted the allusion. Polwhele resented it. He tried to jolly them along with a few Trelawny anecdotes.
‘Perhaps we are a bit tired,’ said Fraser taking a swig from his jug ‘We have been flogging ourselves this last couple of weeks. If I don’t get a first, I will personally complain to the First Lord.’
‘Then you’ll have to join Sebold.’
‘Oh, I forgot!’ said Fraser morosely, ‘I think not.’
Things perked up with the entrance of Tavern Tessie carrying some more jugs and some plates of eels.
The conversation turned to thoughts of future postings and the exciting anticipation of promotions. ‘How long do you think we’ll have to wait to know?’
‘I believe the average is 18 months,’ said Fraser. ‘Things are picking up these days.’
Polwhele laughed, ‘Sebold will probably know tonight.’ There were groans.
With the imbibing of the alcohol spirits rose.
‘There’s some hot work in the Bight of Benin, wouldn’t mind that’… said Polwhele.
Tessie came in with another round of refreshments and indeterminate dishes in what looked like pottery shards, Bowen thought it a novel idea. He reached out for an interesting plate of what he took, hopefully, to be devilled kidney but he was stopped by a shriek from Gail.
‘Lord, would you look at that!’
Sebold in full evening dress, was coming through the door.
A moment of amazed silence, then cries of welcome.
‘Glad you came to your senses old man,’ Mason pulled out a chair for him.
‘Knew you couldn’t keep away from the Notables.’ Fraser shook his hand.
‘Sit down you old beggar, take a noggin,’ and the jug was handed up to him by Polwhele.
‘What happened – did you ditch the old man after all?’ laughed Gail.
‘Decided I couldn’t trust you fellows to run a meeting without me and certainly not to make an evening you would never forget. Actually, got the Pater to remember when he was at the end of a commission and had to say goodbye to fellows he might never see again, fellows who might end their lives in battle, accident and disease in foreign parts.’
‘I say, you really laid it on – I’ll get out the violin.’
‘He got the message, and I got a hansom cab and hired it over here.’
‘Well done old chap.’ Polwhele shook his hand and passed him the plate, which on closer inspection really did contain devilled kidneys. ‘Something to get you going. You don’t deserve them.’ He had to avoid showing Sebold just how pleased he was to see him. The dear fellow had given up his father, the First Lord, and the prospect of immediate interest just to be with the old gang. He looked at Sebold and allowed an unusual feeling of what he almost supposed was love to come over him.
There was an immediate feeling of relaxation all around the table. It was reminiscent of the time at Rizzie’s in London when they had all just become Midshipmen.
‘Get that jug up this end,’ shouted Mason.
‘What about a song, a recitation, an anecdote’ ….said Bowen.
‘Yes, all good clubs should have an anecdote or two about them. Let’s hear it for a favourite. What’s your best Polwhele?’
‘Lord, you remember that time in Briton when I thought I liked the Captain’s daughter and asked the Captain’s steward to leave a note for her and he gave it to the Captain to give to her! And the wretched man read it and put me on bread and water for fourteen days!’
‘And that time we let that term Captain think he was drowning in the mud before we pulled him out,’ said Halling.
‘Pulled him off his high horse, didn’t it? No trouble after that.’
‘And what about the ghastly Stollman,’ Gail cried, ‘No trouble after Ephraim knocked him out!’
Polwhele looked around the table. He had known these fellows for ten years and would probably never see them again once they were sent on their way as Lieutenants. They were the most reliable decent chaps he could ever hope to meet. Voices were raised in excitement, faces were flushed with rum, arguments were starting as to how utterly horrible or delightful had been their service on their various ships.
‘Right!’ Cried Polwhele, ‘Now we are all together and who knows for how long, let us raise a toast, ‘To the Notable brothers wherever we are and wherever we go, and to our Notable president who did not and never will, fail us.’
‘To the Notable brothers!’ Glasses were raised, and Fraser had the jug to his lips,
‘Good old Sebold!’
‘Right,’ said Sebold, ‘Come on you fellows. Time for a Hornpipe!’
They pushed the heavy chairs aside and started to dance round the table. Bowen linked arms with Sebold and together they demonstrated a few fancy steps, others taking up the idea. They were no ordinary Hornpipe dancers. Ephraim stood back in admiration; ‘What shall we do with the Drunken Sailor?’ came from seven inebriated choristers and the choir got louder and louder until there was a sudden shout from Fraser,
‘Hey, shut up you lot. There is something going on outside!’ He was looking down through the window.
‘The newsboy is shouting something. People are stopping.’
The dancing ceased, the singing stopped, and they all clambered to the window.
‘My God!’ said Sebold, ‘See what he is saying.’
”Explosion on HMS Plunderer! Boiler explodes killing 45 people – Captain Hilson in boiler room at time of explosion – 70 injured…‘ My God!’ They looked at each other.
‘My cousin!’ cried Polwhele.
‘Hepplewhite’s father!’ said Ephraim, ‘He was in it. Oh, poor Sam!’
‘How could it have happened?’
‘I’ll get a paper,’ said Fraser, ‘Before they are all sold out.’ He ran downstairs and returned with several copies of the Thunderhead. It seemed a pressure gauge on the ship had broken and the safety valve had corroded in place. So many good men gone! For such a slight reason. How vulnerable was this life in a ship! Ephraim sighed.
The evening dissolved in the sympathy of grief. A night to remember, in more ways than one.