Part 5 – Captains
Chapter 2 – Life Moves On
Ephraim was feeling slightly unsettled as he ate his excellent breakfast omelette. He had heard that HMS Intervention was bringing Sebold back into Malta again for the next spell of manoeuvres. Memories of the welcoming telegraph embarrassed him. How would Sebold feel about that now? He would take the first opportunity of inviting him into his cabin for a welcoming drink. At least that would produce no problems with Berryford.
‘Great to see you again Seb. Sorry about that business with the signal.’
‘I know you meant well but it was a bit unorthodox.’
‘Anyway, very good to see you, friend. Tell me what you have been up to.’
They exchanged news and Sebold was aware that compared with Ephraim’s colourful and dangerous gunboat life, his own life as Admiralty assistant to the Second Junior Lord Powell had been safe but dull.
‘I expect you wonder why I got my Captaincy when I hardly ever saw the sea. I lived a virtual landlubber’s life at Admiralty I can tell you. I felt a bit out of my depth when I started, still feel a bit out of my depth to tell you the truth.’
‘I can give you a few tips on sea time here,’ said Ephraim, ‘These manoeuvres and mock war tactical exercises Admiral Phisher is so keen on, are all the thing now. He is a bit of a paper tiger, but he certainly gets things done. Even Berryford said he had learned more in this last week of tactical exercises than in the last forty years. Berryford moans because although he is second in command, he says he never gets to do anything, so he still writes to Parliament – does not complain about Phisher – just makes suggestions for improvement. That wretched Arnold Trite, Daily Mail correspondent, just stirs up trouble in the National Review, lauding Phisher and Berriford for campaigning for a bigger fleet, but as they are obviously fighting with each other, now Secretary of State Andrew Forster has joined in on Phisher’s side. Berryford hates it, says it creates irritation among brother officers, but I think since Phisher is backed by Selborne, he will win in the end. He wants to amalgamate the Channel Fleet with Mediterranean to have one big Home Fleet with himself in charge. While there are the two current fleets, Berryford has more power as second in command. Well I won’t go on about it – we will see how it works out.’
‘Of course, I learned a thing or two at Admiralty,’ said Sebold, ‘Admiral Wilson won’t stand for all this argument, he thinks it’s childish. I reckon he will go and Phisher will be master of all he surveys. First Naval Lord soon, I should not wonder.’
Ships were always coming in and out of Malta for repairs and other reasons and shortly after the arrival of Captain Sebold there was the surprising arrival of Polwhele, not yet a Captain but a Commander in the destroyer HMS Virtue. Ephraim did not send a welcoming telegram but organised a welcoming supper. He regretted not having a villa now where he could entertain as he had done before with his beloved Emily, but Jones was an excellent steward and would arrange something convivial for them in his cabin. He would get Sebold over to join them. Ephraim was fortunate in the size of his cabin, he had managed to place a table and leather armchairs to provide the comfortable ambience of a club. They sat smoking and drinking. Polwhele lifted his glass,
‘Great to see you fellows again. Congratulations on becoming Captains – still waiting for mine,’ he laughed, ‘What’s all this I hear about a fracas between Phisher and Berryford. Don’t get much news in China but it percolated that far. Seems there is a lot to be said on either side. Phisher’s reforms with Osborne and the new education sound good to me but of course chaps like Rustance can’t stand the thought of an engineer in the Wardroom. Do not see how Phisher can go wrong with Selborne behind him. Selborne agrees with everything he says and does. The wretched Admiral is always in such a rush, no time for anything. All the Captains are complaining about such short term notice these days. One minute we are in the Med Fleet, then it’s the Channel Fleet or the Atlantic Fleet and now with only moments to prepare from Shanghai, here am I in the Med again just to prepare for an exercise to please Phisher. Rustance says it’s the only way to keep Berryford out. They don’t like Berryford at Admiralty.’
Sebold was informative but they did not want to talk about Admiralty all night.
‘Changing the subject,’ said Polwhele, standing up, ‘Where did you get all these pictures from, Eff?’ There were various childish drawings pinned around the cabin. ‘Some of them are quite good – and quite funny. Is this you in the sun hat and Admiral’s uniform? And that’s not a bad drawing of a gunboat. Where d’you get them? Local school?’
‘Actually, my son Gideon drew them. He is quite good.’
‘Your son!’ Polwhele was taken aback, ‘How did I miss that? Browne, how could I not know?’
‘Well, I never told you. The subject never came up. I didn’t have the occasion to see him after he was born and then, not till he was seven. The boy is at Osborne now.’
‘And did he tell you he is married again?’ asked Sebold.
‘Apparently, he thought it not important enough to tell me.’
‘Don’t be daft,’ Sebold was not sure how Ephraim was taking this, ‘It only just happened. Did you not know Emily had a child and Ephraim, as his father, had him looked after by his grandmother?’
‘No!’ – Polwhele looked askance.
‘It is not a romantic attachment,’ Ephraim said severely. ‘The child needed a mother. I never knew my own and have always regretted it.’
Come to think of it there had been rumours about a baby at the time, but Ephraim had never spoken of it and Polwhele had never given it a second thought. Well. the matter should rest there and if he never spoke of it again it was up to him. On the other hand, as he looked at the pictures, surely, they would speak again.
The evening continued happily. They were old friends and had plenty to talk about. Out of courtesy to Polwhele they kept off some matters that were of interest to Captains in particular and dwelt on more general interests. Sebold was becoming proficient with the clarinet and as he said in these days of naval emphasis on efficiency, it paid to practice something until one became sufficiently efficient to enjoy it – also it could go in most baggage and provided an efficient weapon in certain circumstances. Ephraim spoke of his new found interest in macrame and made them laugh by showing them a new crooked flowerpot holder he had made for a favourite croton from the Niger which had accompanied his travels as it grew ever larger.
Polwhele spoke of coming war with unusual gravity, the considerable interest in the reaction of the Fleet when it was announced that Phisher had become First Sea Lord. They touched on his reforms for scientific education and the need for more ships to prosecute a successful war.
As they talked, the lamps in the cabin were growing brighter, the sea outside was getting darker.
‘Time to go,’ said Polwhele. As he stood up, his knee failed him and he fell slightly against Sebold,
‘Damn leg! Never been the same since China.’
They laughed sympathetically and parted as the good friends they were.
With the excited anticipation he always felt when he saw the blue Admiralty envelope, Ephraim opened the latest communication from Gideon he had been keeping in his pocket:
I nearly got killed! It was so exciting. Shots rained down on us and it was a real battle. It was the Russians. They thought we were the Japs I think. Actually we were in Eliza’s uncle’s fishing trawlers. He is awfully nice and it was such fun. Here is the drawing for it.
Now the best news, I have got Midshipman with six month seniority. Isn’t that marvellous? I was sorry you could not be there for the passing out parade.
No time for more – got to get ready for HMS Venture – no peace for the wicked!
Your devoted son, Gideon
There was another fragrant smelling letter inside the envelope,
Dear Captain Browne,
I am so sorry that Gideon saw the shooting. I hope you did not mind that I took him out fishing with my uncle. The boy was so keen to go and of course we had no idea that we should be caught up in that terrible misunderstanding. He was perfectly safe at the back and did not even see that the men at the front were killed. Of course, he will have to see that now he is a Midshipman but one does not want to start too early. I am very sorry.
I hope you are well and happy,
Ephraim had mixed feelings. Of course, he understood what Eliza said, and no doubt the experience would add to Gideon’s understanding of his life in the future. But now all that early ambivalence about a naval career came back. To kill and be killed. What right had he to have put his son in harm’s way in the Navy at such an early age, at such a stage in the Navy’s history when it did begin to look like as if a war was coming. Of course, now the boy was able to make up his own mind. And there was the other side. The Royal Navy was now the supreme protector of a nation and a wide Empire. It carried justice and law throughout the world. The boy would not go amiss if he played his part in that.