Part 3 – Lieutenants
Chapter 2 – Navy not the only thing!
The course at Greenwich, delightful as it was, did not last long. Now, with certificates in Seamanship, Gunnery and Navigation in their pockets, the Sub Lieutenants awaited their new appointments on the way to the next desirable goal of Lieutenant. Their Lordships were disappointed by the number of third class passes at Greenwich, but Ephraim had shared a first class pass with Sebold and they both felt well placed for early commissions as Lieutenants.
Of course, Fitz had been the first to hear, thought Sebold. Almost as soon as the Honourable had got his third from Greenwich, and it was hardly surprising since he had an Earl as his grandfather and a scion of the illustrious Pellew was his father. Fitz had got the Chester; but others were hanging around impatiently awaiting their appointments. Polwhele got Galahad on the China station,
‘Holy Moly, not the Chinese pirates?’
Sebold had not long to wait. The First Lord’s visit had obviously paid off. He was appointed to Favourite in Malta, indeed a favourable appointment in the Mediterranean fleet. Although Ephraim’s exam passes had been equally exemplary, he had the least interest of all the Notables. One might even say, he thought morosely, he had managed to arouse disinterest with his dissenter background and unusual clerical father. None the less, three days after Sebold’s appointment, he was appointed to HMS Greatheart in Malta. It was a commission that sounded to his liking. It would not only be interesting, the climate was lovely, and it would be pacific, all was quiet there now, but Sebold would again be on his station. If he had to go and fight, he would but he did not think there would be much killing in relation to what some were already talking about as a holiday jaunt. Gail was waiting to take up his commission in Glorious in West Africa – he was looking forward to it, there was some sort of trouble going on with the Ashanti, so no fear of boredom.
Ephraim and Emily had been in close correspondence since their first meeting at Lady Gail’s Easter house party and seen each other several times at Greenwich. Emily enjoyed seeing her brother as well as Ephraim. He was now twenty two years old and was feeling an increasing attraction to this independently minded young lady who expressed herself as forcibly in writing as in her presence. But she was so changeable: one moment all sweetness and light then Thor himself as she slung her thunderbolts of judgement around careless of who they fell on.
There had been another letter in the post with his appointment. It was an invitation from Lady Gail to a farewell house party with William and friends at Charworth. Perhaps this last weekend with Emily before he set sail for Malta would settle things – or at least move them on.
What he liked about a visit to Lady Gail at Charworth House was that nothing ever changed. Even the flowers in their urns on the stone steps seemed always the same, and the windows and the stuffed sofas with their ancient upholstery in need of refurbishment looked as if they would never submit to replacement. Also, the house was never too warm which he found energizing. Bowen and Fraser complained it was too cold. When he arrived, he feared that Emily was not there. Sebold was already on the tennis court with Charlotte. The butler escorted him to the drawing room for refreshment, but he could not see or hear her amongst the people gathered.
‘Sweetmeat? Sugar?’ Lady Gail herself offered him a cup of tea. ‘Do make sure, Ephraim, that dear William has a word with Lord Milton when he comes. He is bad at doing anything to promote his own interest and I want to see him in the Med or somewhere healthy, not that wretched West Africa station. His cousin Jonathan was there last year, and half his crew were invalided home with fever. You must take a horse and have a run before evening, I know you like that sort of thing, how I wish I had taken it up myself when I was young. I really must ….must? What was I saying?’ She looked perplexed. Her voice tailed away in momentary confusion. She rang the bell for more tea.
As Ephraim turned, he heard the voice in his ear. ‘Oh ho! A sprat to catch a mackerel?’
‘Of course not! Emily, I do not know why I wanted to see you again – you can be horrid!’
‘I’m sorry – it just that all you young Subs hope my mother will put in a word for you with the First Lord, and I expect for you, she will. Mind you, between you, me and the gatepost I think the poor old dear is beginning to lose her mind.’
‘Oh, what rubbish!’
‘What would you know about it? What do you know about women, young or old?’
‘Perhaps I could learn,’ Ephraim tried to say archly but then thought better of it, ‘Not if they are all like you.’
‘Oh, come on, I’m not so bad, come and tell me what you have been doing.’
She took him over to the sofa and he followed obediently and not unwilling.
He loved the delicacies of her, the little cough she punctuated her sentences with sometimes, the foamy lace-edged handkerchief she was never without. They contrasted against the strong deliberations she was always giving voice to before she agreed that he might have a point.
William Gail looked across at them. He was sorry he was not going to be on the same ship as Browne. He was such a decent fellow. Not a likely hero but you never knew in the service, it was all so much a matter of where you were serving and were there going to be any wars, if a chap was going to make his mark. People were beginning to call the time since Trafalgar a long, dark lee with no chance of excitement on the ocean, or Nelsonic heroism in ships. Of course, there were naval brigades against recalcitrant tribesmen in West Africa and the Ashanti on the Gold Coast, dangerous skirmishes with Chinese pirates, the courageous boarding of a slaving Dhow. These were easily overlooked but there was hope for the future. He could hear Sebold, who had joined them in conversation,
‘Come on Browne tell me at least you’re looking forward to the Med now and not going to go on pretending you might give it all up for the church or some other God forsaken idea.’
‘Something wrong with the logic of that statement, Seb,’ laughed Ephraim.
‘Don’t keep your cards so close to your chest then, or one day you won’t be able to breathe.’
Ephraim was investigating those cards close to his chest now. He was not used to thinking emotionally, ‘Well none of them were,’ he thought. You didn’t get to be a naval officer by introspection of feelings. That did not get you anywhere, made you look naive or just stupid, feelings were difficult to understand, they could lead you up the wrong tree – analysis of facts was what was required – strategy and tactics, fact and circumstance, evidence of experience not emotion. Yet there were some strange sensations coming to him and they were mostly physical and factual feelings. He felt a strange desire to put his arms around the girl and kiss her – especially when she was being difficult. Well then, he would try it. She would probably shriek and castigate him with her tongue, but he would try it.
‘Emily, what about a walk before dinner?’
Lady Gail’s garden was widespread and had been delightfully designed by the admired Capability Brown who had capably designed many charming spots for couples to admire each other. There was nothing seen to be amiss in assignations by the lake or under the cunningly designed waterfall, the charmingly built folly amongst the woods or the romantic little Gothic chapel by the appealing stone bridge. He had read enough about this sort of thing to choose the romantic Chapel, surely that would influence Emily out of her caustic wit.
Emily was well disposed towards the assignation. She liked Ephraim – he was a serious young man and not given to flirtation, she would enjoy a walk with him. It was quite a step for them to find the hidden dell which housed the little stone church with its mock Gothic windows and invitingly cool porch.
‘Gosh, it is hot, I shall be glad to sit down,’ said Ephraim.
‘Too used to walking the deck, to be able to stretch your legs properly!’
‘You can talk, you wouldn’t stand two minutes on a moving deck.’
Being so near Emily was doing things to him. He was aware of the beauty of the garden, the softness of the air, the joy of the moment.
‘One feels like Wordsworth,’ he declared, lengthening his stride, ‘Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive….’
‘Ephraim, what are you saying? Not like you to miss the time of day…the sun is going down already – over the yard arm, isn’t that what you should say – sunset?’
Ephraim was confused, ‘I mean it just feels good. To be with you,’ he added hopefully.
‘All right, don’t get soft. It’s giving me a tickle in my throat,’ she took out the delicious handkerchief and caught her breath, ‘We shall have to hurry if we are to get there and back in time to change for dinner. But it is lovely,’ she added, seeing the expression on his face.
They came up to the Chapel, Ephraim praying there would be no one else there. Emily was right about the sun. Shadows were lengthening. It was obvious that most visitors had gone by now. They went inside to enjoy the cool air and sit on the thoughtfully designed bench next to the little gargoyle that spouted drinking water.
Ephraim looked at Emily. She had bent to cup some of the water into her hands. He saw her breasts fall forward under her dress, dare he even say the word, think of them? Some of her gorgeous dark hair had escaped, what must it look like let down? She lifted her deep blue eyes,
‘What do you think are Russia’s intentions in the Med?’ she asked Ephraim. ‘Do you think there will be trouble in the Dardanelles?’
What a firm chin she had, he thought. They sat close together.
‘Well, you know, I’m posted to Greatheart at Malta. We might see some excitement.’
He drew a bow at a venture. ‘You make me excited,’ he said. He wanted to name it. Would she know what he meant? He slid an arm around her.
Emily made a movement to draw away, but it felt oddly nice, if surprising, to be in this position. She found herself moving closer,
‘I wonder if that gargoyle is an accurate portrayal,’ said Ephraim.
‘Shouldn’t think so – he never met you, did he?’
Ephraim gave her a dig in the ribs, but somehow, he fell against her and his dig turned into an embrace and he held her in his arms. He smelled the clean fragrance of her skin, the warmth of her breast, and his lips like a magnet met hers. A delight never even imagined before overcame him. For a moment Emily resisted, she yielded, and it seemed her being melted at his touch. Both were lost for words, till Emily rescued the situation,
‘We must get back.’ She stood up, ‘I didn’t know you were …’ and then she stopped. She did not want the glib, satirical reply. Something wonderful had happened. She smiled and put her hand on his arm. ‘Take me into dinner,’ she said, ‘And keep smiling at me.’
The house party was in full flow. Drink was flowing, not always down throats, as people knocked into each other getting around the small tables to see the people they wanted to speak to. Lady Gail was wafting around like an agitated butterfly seeing to everyone’s comfort. Lord Gail was unusually present, and it was rumoured that the First Lord was to be there later that evening. Fraser also, was hoping to arrive later, he had been listening to his father speaking in the House, he hoped to catch Lord Milton’s eye in a professional way. He was interested to know what Lord Milton thought of Percy Trott’s idea of Director firing with guns.
Such gatherings were important to the up-and-coming guests from all walks of life. Who was in, who was out? The artistic hoped to meet Mr Ruskin who was a favourite with Lady Gail, the musical opted for the up-and-coming Edward Elgar, and the young naval officers wanted to see Lord Gail, or, preferably, as there was a commotion in the entrance hall, the new First Lord. Ephraim, still in his romantic haze from the previous hour, was interested in none. His eyes remained on Emily. William Gail hoped to circle the First Lord at a discreet distance and then have his father introduce him. He was happy with the West Africa posting but hoped to lobby for HMS Gracious in the Med with Browne and felt that was a possibility now he was a Sub Lieutenant in his father’s house.
Lord Gail was spread before the empty hearth. Winter or summer it was his favourite position for imbibing whiskey and indulging in the power he generally enjoyed in favouring his naval guests.
‘And what do you young fellers think of your Med postings. Jolly lucky I should say, fast becoming the darling of the Navy where berths are concerned, no?’
‘Indeed sir,’ Lord Gail had fixed his eye upon Ephraim,
‘Not too far from one’s family, no?’
‘No indeed,’ Ephraim agreed.
‘Bit far if you want to court a girl of course?’
Ephraim was becoming suspicious. He felt he was being baited.
‘There are girls in Malta, Sir.’
Why was Lord Gail looking at him like that? Did the Lord know something he didn’t?
‘But then again,’ Lord Gail shifted his position, ‘I know Captain Hall frowns on anyone getting married before the age of thirty-five. So, it won’t trouble you, eh?’
Lord Gail looked at the confused young officer before him and smiled. He had hit home – the chap was after his daughter. But it would be some years before he was home and dry – an apt and accurate metaphor he thought. He did not know Ephraim.
The lady in question was at a table in the far corner where the Honourable Sylvia was showing her new photographs and explaining dark room techniques and suitable poses to her friends. It was an interest Emily had recently taken up with her. Before Ephraim left for his new commission, she would have a photograph to remind her of the extraordinary but delightful incident just passed.
The rest of the evening passed uneventfully. Ephraim was permitted to take Emily into dinner and Sebold held Charlotte’s arm. Lady Gail smiled. Wine and conversation swept delightfully around them. That night, as he lay in his comfortable bed, all Ephraim could think of was Emily. He wanted to talk and laugh and know her more; her personality and her presence were all he wanted, all he could ever want. But how would she take that?
Morning came all too soon. It was time for the guests to assemble for breakfast preparatory to leaving. Sebold was wondering if he could angle for a little extra time. The day with Charlotte had not gone well. She could not take her eyes off Sub Lieutenant Bowen. Under the intermittently watchful eye of Lady Gail, farewells were said,
‘Charlotte my dear, leave Sub Lieutenant Bowen alone. I am sure Sub Lieutenant Sebold would like to see the horses again before he goes. It was always necessary to guide in the right direction. Emily was safely with Sylvia in the conservatory,
‘Oh Ephraim, do come in here before you go. I want to make a photograph of you.’
‘So long as it is not with the Venus fly catcher,’ called Ephraim.
‘Oh, it will be under the prickly pear, come along now. Bertram has set it all up.’
Ephraim put a grave expression on his face. It was difficult not to break into joy as Emily fussed with things under the canopy of the camera and set it on its tripod.
After a couple of cries of frustration while Ephraim felt his face beginning to crack, Emily pronounced it finished. Guests crowded round in admiration.
William came up,
‘Come on Browne, we will miss our train if you do not move! Halford is holding the carriage for us.’
He took Ephraim’s arm. Ephraim squirmed away. He bent towards Emily and grasped her hand,
‘Marry me!’ he whispered.