Part 5 – Captains
Chapter 3 – Issues
It was the last day of manoeuvres, Sebold and Ephraim were taking a reviving drink in Harry’s Bar.
‘Pol was not much in evidence in manoeuvres today. He should have been on the bridge of Charity with the Captain, surely,’ said Sebold.
‘Yes, I have been worrying about Pol for some time now. I have thought perhaps there is something not quite right with him. Only small things like spilling drink or dropping change but last time, did you notice, did you think he was slurring his speech, or when he stood up, a bit insecure on his legs?’
‘Oh, that’s egging the pudding a bit – he did have a bit to drink with that Tequila he brought with him.’
‘It has crossed my mind that it might be something to do with him not being a Captain yet. It was a bit of the elephant in the room when we were talking together but it might be something to do with that last spell in China – perhaps he was ill or injured. You know he would never like to admit it. But some of his ‘gung-ho’ seems to have gone and it would stop him getting Captain now we are all boning up for war.’
‘I wish we could do something to help. You know that in that last mock attack exercise Berryford had gout but rather than show it, got himself onto the bridge at the last moment and showed himself, and Phisher was convinced he was responsible for the good showing throughout. Those two seem to be getting on all right at the moment. Perhaps we could contrive something for Pol to show his courage and bravery.’
‘Throw someone in the drink and he can rescue him, you mean.’
‘Or better, throw ourselves in! No, but a spineless Captain doesn’t help a Commander to rise, and Jurgens is no good to Pol’s career.’
‘You mean he’s German like Battenburg. You know what they are saying about him now.’
‘Not that either – I just mean Pol needs to show what he can do. We should have words with him.’
They did have words with Polwhele but not ones they wanted. Polwhele had invited them to a drink in the Navy club at Valletta and Sebold decided not to wait on niceties. He could see at once that Ephraim was right – there was something wrong with him. His hand shook and he had trouble gripping his glass. It seemed to be an effort for him to get words out of his mouth.
‘Pol tell us what’s wrong – you’re not yourself. Bit of fever?’
‘I was hoping you wouldn’t notice.’
‘You need a break. Tough time in China? The South Seas?’
‘I don’t know. The only thing I know is that anything I say now ruins my chances of Captaincy. They want men for war not wimps.’
‘You just need time to get over it. Got an idea,’ Sebold drained his glass, ‘We can swing a letter to Jurgens saying your mother is dying, or someone, and you must get leave to see her. Say she is in Spain and your uncle is coming over to take you to see her. Then you take a couple of weeks in a hostel in the mountains, we’ll see you get some care, and bob’s your uncle, you are back to work again and can impress everyone as you have done before.’
‘I am touched that you care,’ he said, ‘But too late! I have seen the MO and you two have been perceptive as well as caring, to notice. It seems I have some sort of neurological problem – he doesn’t know what it is but it is not going to make me a Captain if anyone gets to hear of it and it’s not the sort of thing I am going to be able to keep to myself. Its going fast – my legs are not working well. I have to think up a strategy.’
‘Then it’s more of a question of what to do next,’ said Sebold.
‘Yes, and I think I have opted for my tactics. I have not been idle. Trelawney, remember him? Trelawney was a great man, but he spent some of his time in prison for his conscience. Well, strange as it may seem, I think I have found mine. I always wanted to be an Admiral but now I think I will have to be a conscientious objector. I know you chaps think I am pretty gung ho, but I am not really keen on killing. Thinking about this war which I don’t think we’re able to avoid, has brought me into some pretty funny places mentally speaking. Reckon I had what they call an epiphany – I saw God.’
‘Shut up Pol!’ said Sebold, ‘You are just ill and overworked!’
‘What do you mean?’ Ephraim was interested.
‘I saw God, anyone can see him if they are interested, He is in everything!’
‘What did he say then? What rubbish did he tell you, then?’
‘Quite simple. He said He was sorry I could not be an Admiral, but had I thought of training to be a Chaplain? So, I have thought of it and I have had words with your Lieutenant, Sweetman, Ephraim. Reckons there will be need of Chaplains come the war and I can probably train at Spurgeons.’
‘Is that it?’ Sebold was fazed.
‘I am going to become a Chaplain – follow the Trelawney line. Compassion not Conquest.’
‘Well, I suppose he was a bishop!’
‘Pol, don’t make me laugh,’ said Sebold doing just that.
‘He’s serious,’ Ephraim looked at his friend with new eyes. ‘What does the lovely lady Lily say about it?’
‘She’s all for it – after all she plucked me from a life of vice, didn’t she?’ and he looked meaningfully at Ephraim.
‘Well, I think its mad! You have not thought about it. Who would have you anyway? You don’t go to church!’
‘Never heard of such a thing as a conversion? Ephraim has – and Mason.’
‘Well, I don’t want to hear any more. I’m sure you’re not that ill Pol. The Navy could find some work for you at Admiralty. Do think about it.’
‘I appreciate your concern Seb but I have seen the light and I hope you do too.’
‘I have all the light I want, thank you. And I certainly cannot take any more of yours. This is the light that leads into darkness! For God’s sake give it up Pol before you get hurt.’
‘Bit ironic in the circumstances,’ said Ephraim. ‘He is hurt already. And so are we, as his friends.’ He looked at the anguished expression on Seb’s face.
‘Come on, drink up. You must get back to your ship. It will all come out in the wash. We must get back to our ships now and start working again on the cards we are given.’
‘Or those we give ourselves,’ said Seb and tried to smile at Polwhele. Polwhele grasped his hand, ‘Don’t give up on me, friend.’
Bad news travels fast. It was not long before all the Notables were aware of Polwhele’s problems. With sympathy came their advice: Mason was first to send him congratulations on his new decision to serve Christ as a Naval Chaplain,
‘It is so good to think we shall have one who is expert in his knowledge and experience of the Navy, and one who can pass that on in Christ’s ministry to others. I have spoken to Kingmall and he is very pleased.’
Fraser urged him to ‘think of using your professional knowledge in Parliament. The populace will warm to you and you should be able to pick up a seat. Also, you could do something for the disabled in your direction. Come and chat about it when you can. Pa may be able to help’.
Sebold advised going abroad, ‘don’t give up. Remember Trelawney – he was a fighter as you are. They are doing great things in Germany in your respect, they will have a cure soon. You can always carry on praying and such like. Forget what I said before – that brings the light. Oh, and think of Gail, he was dreadfully ill and suddenly doing better now. Lord Gail even has hopes of his going back into the Navy. Gail did love it you know.’
Ephraim wondered if they could get together to do something for Pol. Also, it would be good to know how the others were getting on now things were changing so much. Perhaps they could even pick up on Bowen. It was not impossible now that Phisher was First Sea Lord and amalgamating fleets together in a Home Fleet – that would mean a chance of all the Notables being together. After all, it was a fleet to fight a war, if it came, and all the Captains would need to be together for that. And they were all Captains now except Polwhele.
Ephraim’s Malta commission was ending, and he was due for leave now. He might be able to arrange something while he was at home in Portsmouth. At home – that sounded nice. He looked forward to seeing Eliza and he should be able to wangle a bit of leave for Gideon to see his father from Osborne. How would Admiralty view that in these new days of stringency and efficiency.
Home proved as desirable as he had imagined. Eliza had produced some new furnishings for the villa. She had taste and skill. Ephraim was proud to introduce visitors and particularly happy to introduce Admiral Gladwell to meet his new wife and see his new home. They exchanged news of the current fleet in the Med and Gladwell expressed anxiety at news of bad feeling in the fleet between Phisher and Bettersford. ‘It does not presage well for the management of the fleets in any war that may be coming.’
War was hardly in Ephraim’s mind as they cleared the dishes and Eliza prepared the rooms for bed.
‘We have an excellent photographer on board in Lieutenant Brennan,’ he said, ‘Would you like to see one or two photos before we turn in?’ They sat together on the newly furbished sofa. It was comfortable. He put his arm around her to steady the photos. She leaned gently towards him and he liked the fragrance of her. She smiled and expressed her pleasure in the photos. He felt something he had forgotten, a rising of warmth and desire. She looked at him with understanding,
‘Would you like to share my bed tonight?’
He did not answer but took her in his arms.
They were good days that followed while Ephraim waited for news of his next deployment. When it came, he was pleased that HMS Vogue was to be transferred to the Channel fleet under Berryford. It would be stationed in home waters and that meant promise of several visits home to Portsmouth; a double bonus of time to be with Elizabeth and time to enjoy the chance of meeting old naval acquaintances and friends in the streets and hostelries of the Naval town. It was not long before he bumped into Fraser. He was going to pick up some tapestry work for Eliza at the local haberdashers and to his delight he saw Fraser walking along in front of him. There had been a time when he might have gone the other way or pretended not to see him, but he reflected now on how much he had come to appreciate Fraser since they had worked together in Peerless, and he speeded to catch up with him. They were just passing the Lyon where he and Mason had last met. It looked even more tacky today. ‘Great to see you Fraser, what about popping in here for a drink, not brilliant, but convenient?’ There seemed to be a moment’s hesitation and then Fraser agreed. They went inside and Fraser put down a pile of papers from the bag he was carrying on the table.’
‘Very impressive,’ said Ephraim.
‘I wish!’ said Fraser but was no more forthcoming. He seemed muted somehow. Ephraim tried to encourage him with naval political talk.
‘What about this business with Phisher and Berryford? What do you think of the Arnold letter and Arnold Forster getting involved?’
‘The Secretary of State should stay out of it,’ said Fraser glumly but offered no more.
‘You seem a bit low, something wrong, old chap?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘These papers something to do with it?’ Ephraim recognised the Coutts Bank heading.
‘Well, if you must know. I am just going up there. Seems my investments have gone down. In fact, probably lost everything.’ Fraser put his head in his hands,
‘Do you remember our trip to Bahia, and I was away while you went to the Fort and Seb and Polly went elsewhere. Well, I thought I was on to a good thing, Coutts had just started up in Bahia and were offering great investments to attract early business. Thought I would take a punt. Now it looks as if my investments have gone bust. I never told Pa, he always has enough to worry about, and I dread telling him now.’
‘Cheer up, surely its no great worry, your salary is increasing with the new Naval funding, you can recoup.’
‘It’s not my money.’
‘Whose is it?’
Fraser opened his mouth, shut it again, held his hand across it, then opened it.
‘I stole it.’
‘You embezzled it!’
‘It was easy,’ Fraser’s head dropped, and to Ephraim’s anguish and embarrassment, he started to sob.
‘I was going to pay it back. I did at first and I would have continued but then I was moved on to half pay and now I can’t. If I say anything I shall go to prison.’
Fraser was beginning to attract notice. Ephraim stuffed the papers back into his bag, took off his jacket and shielded Fraser as he hurried him out of the tavern. He would take him to Eliza. She would know what to do. Eliza welcomed the incoherent, broken man into the house, as Ephraim knew she would, and asked no questions. Settled by the fire with a tot of brandy for restoration she babbled gently about the weather and suchlike until exhaustion closed Fraser’s eyes.
‘What’s his name?’ she whispered to Ephraim.
They went into the kitchen. It was obvious he would have to tell Eliza more, and the truth would seem to be the simplest. He gave her the full story and she said James should stay the night and they would inform the authorities in the morning.
‘We cannot tell anyone!’ Ephraim was horrified.
He wanted another solution. ‘He is my friend. I must help him.’
‘You will help him more by letting him put it right.’ She touched his hand, ‘He is not well. If he repays the money, surely that will be alright, and he will feel better and so will you. Otherwise, he will never be free. We can sort it in the morning.’
‘He will never tell his father. It is not that he is afraid of him, he cares too much to hurt him. If it is known that his son is a senior naval officer and a thief, Oliver Fraser will be ostracised from society, lose his seat in the house, and lose his faith and pride in his son. By trying to put it right in the way you suggest both of them lose everything.’
‘They don’t lose their moral integrity and self-respect!’
‘Fraser has lost that already.’
‘Exactly – this way he can regain it!’
‘And what about his father? He is in the Cabinet now. He is making a name for himself. He will never recover.’
‘Well, my dear,’ she said gently. ‘People do – we did. Let me settle James into the guest room and we can talk about it together in the morning.’
Ephraim agreed, he was tired and fractious. He did not want to wrestle with this diversion of decision in his mind. Fraser was a Notable and friend for whom he had an obligation of brotherhood. He was also a naval officer for whom he had an obligation of service to the Navy. Yes, they would talk about it in the morning.
Ephraim woke early after a distracted night. He decided he would not bother Eliza or the girl. He would take Fraser a morning cup of tea and start the talking with him alone.
He carried the tea carefully up the narrow stairs to the guest rooms and put it on the floor while he pushed the door of the largest one gently open.
‘Rise and shine – tea up.’ He picked up the tray, ‘Hope you slept…!’
He stopped. There was no answer and no one in the bed! He thought Eliza would have given him the best room, he turned to the other one
‘Lovely morning…’ No one in the bed, no answer. Fraser must be downstairs. Well, he wasn’t going to carry the tray back down those narrow stairs. Fraser was probably in the morning room. He was not! Drawing room? No.
Kitchen, surely not. Of course – garden. Hell, it was cold, he would have to fetch a coat. The spacious garden that had so pleased them when they bought the villa, yielded nothing – not on the terrace, in the vegetable garden, in the copse, behind the greenhouse? He was not there. Was it possible Fraser had just disappeared? Surely not!!
It was sometime before Eliza and Ephraim concluded that James Frazer had just disappeared. Eliza wanted to inform the police, his family, the Navy. Ephraim knew at once that he would do nothing. The man was deciding his own future and should be left to it. For good or for ill Ephraim did not want to be part of it, wanted no part of it. Man proposes, God disposes. Why try and alter it which was impossible anyway – you play the cards you are given.
Eliza decided to adjust her thinking to Ephraim’s and accepted his idea that they should go out for the day; his whites were in need of replacement even though he thought it more likely they would not be needed in a Channel fleet future, even Home Fleet, if Phisher got his way.
So, the news went ahead despite Eliza or Ephraim. ‘The Western News’ from Portsmouth was full of it, ‘Naval Lieutenant disappears. No return to ship, no explanation. Murder?’
‘I don’t think so,’ says Commander Halling, ‘You couldn’t expect to find a nicer chap – very fair minded.’
Even the Thunderer carried a small heading, ‘Missing Naval officer cause for concern – report by our new Times Naval Correspondent, Hurlestone’.
Elizabeth said they could do no more.