Part 2 – Midshipmen
Chapter 1 – The Warts
Conscious of the new white insignia on their lapels, six young Midshipmen met in the bar of St Pancras Railway station,
‘Let’s hear it for the Notables then!’ said Sebold, raising his glass of beer and banging on the table.
‘To the future!’
‘To the Notables!’
‘Justicia omnibus!‘ Ephraim lifted his glass.
‘And let’s hope we get it this time,’ declared Mason, thumping his glass down.
‘A new life for a new age!’ offered Bowen as they downed the contents.
Like a great shining glass Cathedral, the high arches of the wondrous new Station reflected the soaring aspirations of the future Captains, Admirals, and Lords of the Admiralty of the British Royal Navy. The few onlookers in the bar were impressed; such excitement and such smart young men.
There was a commotion at the door. Polwhele was scrambling through with fishing rod, gaffe and other sporting attachments to his person.
‘Hey, Polly! Great to see you,’ cried Sebold, ‘Didn’t know whether you were going to make it or not?’
‘Course I made it. Had to catch another train from Penzance, been waiting for this.’
‘Here, I’ll give you a hand. Come and join us – get a drink – out of all that noise and steam.’
Polwhele established himself, clattering his implements to the floor as he settled on a slippery bar stool. Sebold noticed at once how the vacation had changed him, he seemed all shoulders now, taller, and there was a new muscle tone about him, fed on Cornish cream and strawberries, Sebold supposed. Come to that, as Sebold glanced around the table, they were all bigger and healthier looking since leaving the Training Ship. Perhaps he was too. He hoped so, he did not relish the prospect of having to look up to his fellows.
‘Do you know where you are going yet, Pol?’ he asked.
‘Not a clue. Not clever like you chaps. I’ll be one of the last to get posted. Got to go to the Bristol and wait.’
They quizzed each other on new postings and the latest news. Sebold’s father had gained some interest with the First Lord, and his son’s exemplary success in the exams had been enough to produce six months seniority and a Midshipman’s berth in the prestigious ironclad warship, HMS Chester, Sebold was pleased. Ephraim still worried over whether he would remain in the Navy, life at home with father was so comfortable and civilised, righteous even. Home seemed very desirable, even for a few days. At the thought of starting anew as Midshipman all his early anxiety and lasting dubiety over a future in the system returned, but since, he had come out first in the list and with six months seniority he felt it was all the more unthinkable that at this stage he should disappoint his father and say no. Anyway, if the Navy had the sense to acknowledge his superiority here who was he to deny it? He still believed that his life was in the hands of the Lord, and this seemed to be a leading. When he learned of his appointment to the Chester and that his friend Sebold would be on board as well, he felt the leading was vindicated. Mason was going to the Thebe but interestingly it seemed Admiralty had not necessarily placed Middies on ships according to their abilities. Halling, who had come out so unexpectedly low at nineteen, had also got the desirable Chester and the surprising Wren at number three, had got the unenviable Tiffy.
‘It’s fine for you chaps,’ said Polwhele, ‘Who knows how long we’re going to be held waiting in that clapped out old Bristol, it’s just a guardship. You have all got your postings!’
But Fraser, Bowen and Gail were also going to the Bristol while Admiralty decided what to do with them.
‘Old Phelps says small ships are best because you can make your mark in them, you get lost on big ones but who wants a sloop when they can command a man of war?’
‘Bit of work before you can command, young Gail,’ laughed Sebold. Gail hoped ‘young Gail’ would have disappeared by now.
‘I don’t care so much about the ship, I just want a good station,’ Bowen sighed. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll get the Med – not enough interest or brains, but at least I hope I don’t get China.’
‘Don’t worry, your blond hair will make a fine pigtail,’ said Fraser, pulling something suspiciously like a ringlet. Bowen smiled and shook his head, he looked at Polwhele.
‘You always wanted the excitement of a sea battle didn’t you, Pol? I bet old Sebold there wants big battles to make a name for himself.’
‘Not necessarily, but if it makes for career progress. Remember, I am going to be Admiral of the Fleet some day. Got to practice.’
‘And that needs more than battle savvy,’ Fraser opined. He turned to Ephraim,
‘What do you want now Browne? You were always moaning about whether or not you would stay. Wasn’t sure you would come back.’
‘I want a decent Captain and a smart ship. One who cares for his people and whose people care for him.’
‘Gosh, you do sound pi sometimes, Browne!’ said Sebold.
‘Well, you sound as if promotion is all you care about. And I know that’s not true, least I hope it’s not. Think of the harmony and the efficiency a good Captain produces on a ship, and not religiously, and you’ll come to the same conclusion. That should suit you.’
‘I say, did you ever hear what happened to Falwell at the end?’ Bowen inquired, ‘Never saw him after he helped save my life, and remember, I ended up in the hospital – last person to get measles in that outbreak. Never heard what happened to the fellow.’
Fraser leaned forward, ‘Well, it so happens, my Pa was up at Admiralty and he heard Their Lordships’ decision. You know he has the ear of Admiral Pudenough – they served together on Helm in the Crimea. Well it seems that the First Lord laid down the law, and said the Admiralty would look so stupid not to have known they had a stowaway for eighteen months plus the fact that he was a pleb and the First Lord could not face the brouhaha there would have been in Parliament, and Elham always acquitted himself so well and never attracted any invidious notice, (we didn’t know until the last moment, did we?) they just quietly appointed him to a Lightship.’
‘Yes, he’ll never make any headway in the service. Should think he might leave now his copy book is so obviously blotted. I wouldn’t wonder…. ‘
Fraser’s voice was lost in the blast of hot steam coming into the bar from the platform, and the roar and whistle of an engine.
‘Hey, that’s Fitz’s train just coming in,’ said Sebold ‘We must get off and meet him and get to Rizzie’s and meet the others, or we’ll be late.’
‘I wonder how old Fitz is? Funny you and him getting so friendly by the end.’ They slid off their bar stools and pushed through the waiting crowd on the platform. Fitz appeared through the sulphurous smoke, splendidly attired in a silver brocade waistcoat with a high white silk stock in the newly fashionable higher collared jacket with black velvet inserts and a double row of bright brass buttons.
‘Wow!’ said Bowen.
‘You allowed to wear that get up?’ sniffed Polwhele.
‘He can till he reports for duty,’ said Fraser.
‘Looks great!’ Bowen made way for him.
‘Never mind all that – good to see you Fitz. Come on, hurry, we must get a cab.’
As they left the hullabaloo of the railway concourse Gail felt the old thrill of admiration as he watched Sebold masterfully select a couple of two wheeled cabriolets and their fine horses from a row of inferior carriages and their snorting animals in the messy, smelly street. Gail did not know London, despite his parents having a house in Hyde Park. He had never had occasion to join the socialising there. He was not sure he wanted any further introduction to the dirty, noisy city which might seduce him into ‘undesirable days of unpoetic ways.‘ The coachman was surly; Middies didn’t mean much in the way of gratuities, he would take them round by way of Blackfriars, but Sebold was on to him and marked out the streets he must take. When they arrived at Rizzies they were not surprised to see it was crammed with loud and jostling naval officers of various ranks and degrees of inebriation, entertaining themselves at the bar. Two Sub Lieutenants were leaning on the counter as Ephraim and Mason approached. One nudged the other,
‘Look out, warts behind!’
The other turned, ‘Is that a wart I see before me! Come, let me grasp thee,’ he clutched Ephraim’s arm and twisted it, ‘Name? Ship?’ he cried.
Ephraim made a move and opened his mouth,
‘Mackerel and Sprat, sir, the Admiral is expecting us.’ Mason intervened brightly.
The Subs weren’t sure. They looked at each other and grunted, ‘Don’t come up here again.’
‘You’ll get us into trouble,’ said Ephraim as they moved away, ‘Suppose they find out.’
‘I would have thumped them.’
‘That would have got us into trouble!’ Ephraim rubbed his bruised arm. Once again, Mason had surprised him.
The Middies tried to infiltrate the company without success until they saw that Fraser was in animated conversation with one of the waiters behind the bar. He gave the waiter something and came forward.
‘Thought you chaps were never going to get here. Pa has arranged for us to have one of the rooms upstairs. Give us a bit of time and peace to ourselves.’ A steward appeared and led the way up the wide staircase to the rooms above.
‘Didn’t expect this,’ said Polwhele, as a concierge on the upper landing approached deferentially and opened the door into a fine, elegant wood panelled room furnished with shining glass tables, dark red drapes and stylish brass lamps.
‘What can I get you gentlemen?’
Glasses of beer were ordered all round and Midshipmen backsides settled with awe on the plush velvet seats. ‘Let’s hear it again then,’ cried Sebold, raising his tankard,
‘To the Notables!’ they cheered, and raised their glasses.
‘To the future!’
‘Justicia omnibus!‘ said Ephraim.
‘Justicia omnibus!‘ whooped Gail.
‘And if we don’t get it, we’ll show ’em,’ said Polwhele, banging his glass down dangerously on the glass table.
Steak, chops and kidneys were ordered while Mason plumped for boiled beef. A waiter came laden with a tray.
‘Pa insisted on organizing Champagne,’ said Fraser nonchalantly.
‘Thank you, Pa!’ They all stood up,
Looking around, Sebold could not help thinking of the last time they had been together at Paddington Station as passing out Cadets; chucking orange peel at each other, peanuts, paper darts, and generally attracting unfavourable notice. What a contrast to the behaviour of these young Midshipmen here, in their updated uniforms with updated manners. No birching now, although if Admiralty got to hear of it there might be repercussions later. (Was Fitz really allowed to wear that outfit?) The delights of civilized life spread before them, they tucked into their welcome, hot, rich smelling food, aspiring to the social graces demanded of naval officers and gentlemen. If this was what being a Middy involved, the sooner, the better. There were indeed some perks to a naval officer’s life thought Ephraim as he solicitously inquired into the nature of Mason’s boiled beef.
‘Very good, don’t often get the chance.’
With a new round of glasses and a champagne toast they promised that as Notables, they would contrive to meet once a year, so long as they were in the service.
‘To the Notable Nelsonic Brotherhood,’ declared Sebold, ‘Because we are all ready to make our mark now as one of Nelson’s ongoing band of brothers.’
‘Bit of a mouthful,’ said Fraser, ‘Couldn’t see Nelson talking about his ongoing band of Notable Nelsonic Brothers.’
‘Oh, Horatio would have approved, he liked to gild the lily.’
‘And he liked to hit the target,’ said Polwhele, ‘I reckon we stick to Nelson’s Notables.’
‘The ‘brothers’ stands by implication,’ said Ephraim, ‘Quod erat demonstrandum.‘
Glass Flutes were cautiously knocked on the table in assent and Nelson’s Notables pledged their allegiance to Nelsonic brotherhood, the new year in the Navy, and to each other.
Fresh tankards of beer were brought and as the Middies tucked into replenished food; the restrained behaviour of the Notables relaxed, and an evening of notable jollity ensued; Polwhele insisted on a rendition of the Song of the Western Men and led them round the table in a unique Hornpipe. Gail found himself on Mason’s shoulders and waving his denuded mutton chop gave voice,
‘Our days as Cadets have finished
The pains of the past diminished
Now come the ranks to Captain
That we all have to act in,
Then stand we tall
As Admirals all.’
Groans and cat calls greeted his fall from Sebold’s shoulders, but for a moment, each boy felt himself again to be a future Admiral of the Royal Navy. As junior midshipmen they would be regarded as not much above worms, the so called ‘warts’ of the Navy. But low as they might be they were an integral part of the ongoing executive class of Her Majesty’s Navy, admirable and admired officers of Her Majesty’s Fleet, and for one night at least, they would show it. With aplomb, they hailed a carriage back to Paddington where they would stay at a hotel before going off to their various postings next day.
‘When shall we all meet again,
In thunder, lightning or in rain?‘ cried Gail.
‘We can’t be sure about whenever
Just know we’ll see some rough, tough weather!‘ laughed Polwhele.
‘And gentlemen, though short or tall
We WILL end up as Admirals all!‘ declared Sebold.