Part 2 – Midshipmen
Chapter 3 – To Australia
‘Well , we shan’t get any more opportunities in Bahia, that’s for sure, we start for Buenos Aires tomorrow and then Sydney.’
As he went down to his hammock for the night, Sebold noticed Smith perched on some drying sails.
‘Better get off those before Madden sees you. I say, that’s a handsome journal.’
‘Taint a journal.’
‘A book?! Let’s see.’
‘No! Get off!’ A tussle ensued before Sebold, the weightier of the two, had it in his hands.
‘Good Lord! You writing poetry?’
‘Yes. You might as well take a look then.’
Now that Smith had got over the shock of discovery, he thought it might be gratifying to let someone else see it. He watched Sebold turn the pages,
At Bahia then we anchored, waiting just two days
The Brazilian flag we did salute, the same to us she pays:
The Bristol soon was left behind, bound to Old England’s shore,
The Crystal joins us in her stead, as was agreed before.
‘Not exactly Shakespeare,’ said Sebold handing it back but resolving to get another look at it later. It might come in useful some time.’
‘Huh! Wouldn’t expect you to appreciate it!’
‘We had a poet on the training ship – he wasn’t much good either!’
What an odd fellow Smith seemed – always bad tempered – funny for a poet.
After putting into Buenos Aires for some repairs, and a short break in Montevideo, the Flying Squadron left for Australia. It brought them to their first experience of a ship in a gale. Thebe had been moving in favourable weather with all sails set. Satisfactorily, even Ephraim was moved to mild poetry, pronouncing it ‘like a stately bird skimming a placid lake’. The Mids thought there there was no reason to fear any change in its state even as they saw the weather thickening; the region was subject to squalls and rain, and there had been one or two sharp showers already, accompanied by tropical torrents which you had to see to believe thought Ephraim. There came a quiet activity on the ship as barrels were placed on the decks to secure water run off for the pigs and poultry; fiddles were fixed on tables to retain the plates and dishes in their places; sails were reduced in size and number, and the crew started anxiously listening to the increasing sound of the wind as it started to howl through the rigging.
Darkness came on, and the First Lieutenant could be seen on the quarter deck, his voice heard repeating various points which required attention, followed by the cheerful ‘Aye, aye Sir!’ response of the bluejackets. The Mids went down to the gun room where the sound of the rushing water and the wind, howling thro’ the shrouds and whistling thro’ the blocks, almost drowned the noise of the rain. An anxious silence grew among them as they listened to the growing rage of the elements and wondered when they would be needed. Thebe keeled into the wind. Some of the Mids began to feel sick. Hepplewhite lay down on the gunroom lockers and vomited.
The First Lieutenant burst into the gunroom, ‘What the blazes are you lot doing in here! I’ll have you all on a charge – get up there.’ Ephraim saw Trenchard kick Hepplewhite, ‘Move!’ At the same instant the Captain’s voice was heard on the speaking tube.
‘Let down the topsails. All hands to the deck!’ Hardly were the words pronounced when a deafening rattle said that the chains which supported the sails had been loosed and the latter were rapidly descending. Hepplewhite was moaning. Ephraim saw Trenchard lift his foot again.
‘Injustia! Not fair!’ Ephraim’s stomach contracted, he balled his fists and tried to climb across the table to strike the tyrant, but in the mayhem of departing Midshipmen, the rolling gunroom, and the falling crockery, he couldn’t reach him. Hepplewhite got himself out and Trenchard disappeared.
And now there was no excuse for a wart not to be up to the topmast in double quick time to help reef sails. At least the 2nd Lieutenant on duty thought not.
‘Smith, you runt, if you don’t get up there a bit faster, I’ll have you mast headed and then you can watch how it’s done.’
The ship was lurching heavily, the young Mids found themselves swinging through a great arc, at one moment almost in the surf of the sea and at the next hanging above the universe as they clung to the ropes and yards to reef the topsails. Smith was nearing the cross trees when the ship gave a sudden jerk as the main chains pulled her over against a high wave and his stomach gave a great heave, emptying itself on Sebold beneath him. Sebold let out an obscenity and grabbed at Smith’s foot above him. Smith’s knees went, but mercifully his hands held on for the eternity it seemed he hung there. He was dimly aware of Sebold passing him, an enormous tongue protruding.
‘Move!’ the 2nd Lieutenant was yelling. Smith moved. A sudden anger filled him. He would not be passed by that ‘toff’ Sebold. His legs came to life, lengthened and swelled, the muscles in his arms became pistons, his eyes cleared, and fury fed him. Never again would he be passed by that toff on the yards. His stomach had cleared and now he would show them. He would reef topsails faster than anyone! It was getting dark. Thank God for the moon scudding behind the voluminous clouds and shedding its light. It even picked out the strands of the rope under his hands. Lamps were being lit down below. He looked with contempt at the ants on the deck beneath him.
‘Well done Mr Smith,’ the cry came up from the First Lieutenant.
Ephraim was amazed at the exhilaration this experience was giving him. Riding high like a star in the storm flashing sky, into the thunder that crackled and bombed around him, and dipping into the sparkling valley of foam below, he praised God for his power and wonder. He looked around – he hoped Sebold was appreciating the majesty of God. He could not see him.
Captain Milesea stayed on deck for almost all of two nights. When he did lie down, he made sure it was with his boots on. As he said to the First Lieutenant next day, ‘If I hadn’t seen that big bugger of a wave coming in when I was standing on the poop, and held on for dear life getting soaked from head to toe, I would not be here this morning.’
‘For which we are all grateful,’ said Lieutenant Drayton. ‘Did you hear that Barr had a big one roll into his cabin – everything floating around, except his bed.’
‘Poor old Barr.’
Things quietened down and normal life returned. Thebe was now embarked on the long sail from Monte Video to Australia. The Middies began to take an interest in the officers who meant so much more to them than they had ever done in the Training Ship. Now a good officer made all the difference. An experienced lieutenant who knew what was needed to sail a ship well, and who could pass that on in a calm and understanding way to young Midshipmen coping with their first gales on the yards, or nervously handling their first crew of bluejackets in a Pinnace, and could provide growing competence and confidence to young inexperienced and nervous Middies when taking a watch or commanding a division, was worth his weight in gold. Thebe had such a one in First Lieutenant Drayton. The older Lieutenant Wise, a quieter, non drinking officer was much liked for his calm, reasonable manner. In contrast an officer like Trowley could make a Middy’s life hell. ‘Trowley the terrible,’ as Acting Commander Trowley was called, struck fear and inadequacy into every Mid as a matter of principle. Every possible chance to remove a Middy’s precious time ashore was taken by that ‘fat slug of a Commander,’ said Smith who was outraged at losing leave by being reported for skylarking – ‘I never skylark!’
The main destination so far as the Squadron was concerned was Hope Bay on the Australia station. The main point of the voyage so far as Admiral James Formby was concerned was to raise a fleet of pre-eminent ability and competence, sailors whose drill and ships were to be the envy of all the maritime nations, and produced evolutions of such excellence as to awake the envy of all the other Navy fleets. ‘The Hon Hath’ was right about Uncle Jim, declared Sebold, as all the Mids acclaimed their admiration of Admiral James Formby’s leadership of the fleet, ‘A stickler but fair.’ They approved the fact that he carried out regular inspections and kept all the ships and their captains up to the mark, equally.
Not everybody shared his ambition, ‘Too enamoured of evolutions,’ grumbled Fraser as they sweated through the daily drills that in a lesser fleet might have been allowed to become a matter of mundanity.
‘Taint just the evolutions,’ complained Bowen, ‘I reckon we do more of the regular drills than any other ship.’
‘You might be right,’ said Hepplewhite as he again happily enumerated the required activities, ‘He wants us to do all the fire drills, signalling with flags and lights, drilling with guns, manning and arming boats, drilling landing parties, ashore and afloat. Don’t reckon old Milesea would be the same left to himself.’
Relief came in the matter of Commander Trowley. The increased work under the gimlet eyes of Admiral Formby had one good result. The Commander made such a hash of things and showed such incompetence in harbour that when he messed up on an exercise, the Admiral would take no excuses, ‘I see nothing in the reports I have of you to mitigate your incompetence on this occasion. It would seem it reflects your general incapacities. You are to be relieved of your command and sent home. Lieutenant Drayton will become Acting Commander.
Sebold wished the Admiral would send Lieutenant Barr home. Ephraim wished he could engineer a situation where Trenchard would be sent home. Barr was the immediate problem. He was a dour, disappointed man, who had aspired to a dashing young life as an executive gunnery officer but his skill at mathematics had proved the more obvious of his attributes and he had ended up with sextants and charts instead of the new Nordfeldt guns, taking the navigation classes with the young Middys and preparing them for their eventual seamanship exams. To add to Lieut Barr’s troubles, navigation was not a popular subject. It produced the worse results in the examinations. He thought Milesea blamed him for that but he knew that Their Lordships were as aware as he of the lacuna in the navigational knowledge of executive officers and to hold him responsible was as ill informed as it was unfair. The result was that any young Middy crossing the Navigation Lieut. was apt to get the worse of it. Sebold felt that Barr had it in for him especially. He would keep referring to Sebold as ‘Mister Sebold’. ‘Would Mister Sebold be so good as to solve this equation ….would Mister Sebold kindly tell the class the inclination of the angle ….would Mister Sebold explain to the others the nature of the co sine problem?’ And when ‘Mister Sebold could not’ there was always a price to be paid, extra time on watch, extra work to be done, the mocking laughter from the older man. Sebold felt his dignity compromised, he was not accustomed to be treated as anything less than a promising young officer. Most officers knew of his relationship to their Lordships via his uncle Baronet Admiral Bartlett and respected the ‘interest’ of such a well favoured young man. Rudeness and misbehaviour were not in Sebold’s gifts much as he might have wanted it, he had to devise other ways to get Barr out of his hair. And he must do that before he had lost all semblance of authority within his group. Sebold had a fair competency with language and literature, excelled in practical seamanship and could manage all the generalities of mathematical computation but stumbled at the farther reaches of numerical expertise. Barr was simply upping the bar, (no pun intended but quite a nice one he thought) to embarrass him and give him an occasion for punishment. What could he do? He preferred conciliation to confrontation, how far would Barr allow himself to be flattered, subborne? What could he use as currency? He had noticed that Barr was vain. He was impeccably turned out in unnecessarily clean and well pressed uniform every day, his hands and nails were perfectly kept and unusually fine in a sea officer who perforce spent some time climbing the rigging to gain the look out. He was always stroking and pushing back his thick, fair hair. His nose had a tendency to run. He attended to it with rather a splendid spotted handkerchief. Sebold observed all this carefully and got an idea. At the next class he would start his campaign. He put it around that he was going to deal with 2nd Lieutenant Barr.
The Mids moved into their places more quickly and quietly than usual. Barr came in, for some reason wearing gloves that morning.
Sebold looked askance at the text for the day, a particularly fraught piece of Euclidean geometry. He would be made to look stupid yet again.
‘I wonder, Mister Sebold, if we could persuade you to make a start on page 7 and explain how the problem shown relates to the transit of Venus?’ Sebold had no idea.
‘I wonder, Lieutenant, if I might show you an interesting little problem I found myself first,’ and, without waiting for an answer, Sebold walked boldly up to Barr and placed a piece of string on the desk in front of him.
‘It’s a puzzle knot Lieutenant, none of us can undo it, but it is a competition, if you undo it you get £50 pounds and a mention in the London Illustrated.’
Barr looked at it. He would need to take his gloves off to undo the intricacies of the string. If he did that, he would reveal the unsightly rash which had suddenly presented itself on his hands and arms as a result of using that new potion which appeared in his cabin last night. He did not want to do that, but £50? And a chance to demonstrate his superiority?
The result was for all to see. He removed the gloves. His hands were covered in red sores. The knotted string was forgotten:
‘Oh, sir, what is it?’
‘Is it infectious?’
‘It’s all up your arms!’
‘Does it hurt?’
‘How did it happen?!’
Sebold came forward brandishing a large white handkerchief, ‘Allow me, Sir.’
He wiped the Lieutenant’s hands. They became miraculously white. Sebold held up the red stained handkerchief.
There were gales of laughter and Middies threw themselves about in paroxysms of joy.
‘Nothing wrong, Sir!’
‘Taint even April Fool’s day…!’
‘Got him that time!’
Barr picked up his gloves, ‘Ridiculous trick! Class dismissed!’ He went out.
‘I say Sebold, can’t you do something like that for all our classes?’
‘Whatever did you use – how come you had to have it so handy?’
‘Ah well, that is something you will have to work out for yourselves.’
Ephraim, remembering that affair with Stollman and the shilling, remembering Sebold’s conjuring capacities, and trading on his friendship pleaded, ‘Come on old fellow, spill the beans, how did you do it?’
‘Well, I know how to make up the dye and I simply put it in one of those cosmetic bottles for hand lotion and asked the steward to put it in Barr’s cabin ‘from an admirer’. He’s as vain as hell. I knew he would try it. And I guessed he would try to conceal it with gloves. Then I knew he would fall for the chance to show off with the knot in front of us. It’s a special dye that comes out instantly with water and leaves no trace on the cloth that wipes it.’
‘You are a conjuror!’
‘Not a conjuror, please… Charles Sebold, Mystic operator.’
‘Mystic, my foot,’ laughed Ephraim, ‘But I can see that will stand you in good stead in Her Majesty’s convoluted Navy.’
It was a long voyage to Australia. They needed diversions like this. A Navy, with only peace and not conquest to enjoy, got easily bored, even shooting at targets with guns got tedious. Thebe was not the only ship to tire of regulation target practice and drop the shells into the sea. Cooped up as they were with one another, tempers were easily frayed. Friendships came and went, there was trouble brewing between Sebold and Smith. Sebold taxed Hepplewhite,
‘I don’t know what you see in that Smith. He can’t say anything civil!’
‘Oh, he’s not so bad – just sensitive.’
‘Well, he was on the Conway blue jacket training ship to start with. Got a lift up!’
‘He needs another one! Don’t they teach any manners down there?’
‘Well, he has a very low boiling point! You should look out!’
News continued to pass from ship to ship. There were official signals and messages carried from one boat to another, and gossip was filtered out. The news was not always good.
Midshipman Polwhele had occasion to visit Thebe in relation to supplies. He found Ephraim and friends in the gunroom.
‘I suppose you heard about Midshipman Johnston this morning…’
‘In Tiffy. He fell with another chap, a rating. The rating was alright. Johnston hit his head, broken skull.’
‘I say, how awful!’
‘Gosh, how ghastly!’
‘Didn’t you hear the bell toll? Makes a chap feel queer to see someone you know wrapped in his hammock and thrown into the sea. Wasn’t a bad fellow Johnston.’
‘Surely not just thrown, though,’ said Ephraim, ‘They must have read the funeral rites over him before they buried him at sea.’
‘Yes, they did that, with all of us drawn up on the quarter deck. Still, funny to call it a burial. The body floated a good time before it stayed under.’
It was the first funeral at sea the young Middies had seen. It left them reflective. Sebold noticed Smith sitting on his chest that night, scribbling away in his precious note book.
‘You writing again, Smith?’
‘What’s it look like?’
‘Can I see?’
Sebold was getting fed up with the silent, morose poet with barely a civil word to say. He had not forgiven him for dousing him with vomit during the gale. The evil smell was still in his clothes!
He was doing some seamanship practice with Hepplewhite a couple of days later when Smith came in.
‘Hello Hep,’ Smith said. He ignored Sebold.
‘Good evening Smith. I trust your stomach is settled now.’
Smith gave Sebold a ferocious look.
Sebold kept his tongue, he would have a last try at putting things right. He was not inclined to keep a quarrel; ships officers, even Mids, must get on with each other. He could usually get anyone to like him – only a matter of flattery.
‘You did pretty well on the ropes Smith, getting that accolade from the First Lieutenant.’
Smith curled his lip and went out. He could not stand that toff Sebold. Always acting as if he ruled the roost, floating around above life. Always talking to the Lieutenants, sucking up to the Subs. Brushing his thick hair with a silver hair brush. Smith smoothed his own thinning locks. Well, at least he did something Sebold could not do. He wrote poetry.
Sebold found the book left on his chest next morning,
‘How sad and solemn too, next day, the bell was sadly toll’d’
His hammock served him for a shroud, in which his corpse was rolled
His lifeless form to the deep we gave, while his funeral rites were read
Where he now sleeps, until once more the sea gives up her dead’.
What effrontery! Such ridiculous behaviour. Who did the fellow think he was? Wordsworth? The fellow needed to be taught a lesson – and he knew just what it should be! Smith had played into his hands by leaving that book on his chest. He would keep hold of it and draw it to Trenchard’s attention. Give Trenchard a chance to humiliate him!
It didn’t take long. Sebold was in charge of a watch with Smith, and Trenchard was indulging himself in spasms of anger and irritation. Verbally and physically he was abusing Smith and Smith was taking it. The watch ended and it became time for the Mids to return to the gun room; there were one or two playing Bridge under the dingy lamp and a couple trying to read when Sebold went in. It was early, the smell was still bearable. No one noticed him walk past Trenchard’s chair and quietly push the book under its cushion. He joined the card players.
Trenchard arrived. He was cradling a bottle of whisky. He tried to settle himself in his chair but something was sticking into him. There was an object under his cushion. In the dark corner of the gunroom it was difficult to see what it was. Others were coming in for the evening; the light was further obscured. He twisted one miscreant away by the ear and called for a lamp. He was bemused. A book? A signature? Smith came in and sat next to Hepplewhite. Nobody took any notice at first. Trenchard seemed to be reading something aloud: at first hesitant, and then gaining ground. What was he saying? What was he doing? Was he reading something? The gun room perked up.
‘At Bahia then we anchored, waiting but two days…
The Brazilian flag we did salute, the same to us she pays:
The Bristol soon was left behind, bound to Old England’s shore,
The Thebe joins us in her stead, as was proposed before…..’
Smith looked up astonished! Trenchard shut the book and threw it at him.
‘That’s poetry, ain’t it?’ We don’t want any of that rubbish here! Get down where you belong.’ Trenchard bent down and pulled an old pair of boots from under his chair. ‘You can clean my boots, not be writing that drivel! Poetry be dammed!’ The very word put Trenchard into a spasm.
‘Boots! On your knees!’
There were whoops of jeering and mock horror, the gunroom was filling, another joyful ritual punishment!
Trenchard had many versions of the boot cleaning ceremony, from the use of a toothbrush to the licking of the leather, from passing them round for a forfeit when more than one offender was concerned, to having them cleaned with the offender’s hair or tongue. This all provided a degree of pleasure to those of the gun room who enjoyed this sort of thing and humiliation of the victim.
Trenchard threw Smith the dirty rag.
‘Get down! Get down.’
‘Let’s see him write something about this!’
‘Make way for Shakespeare!’
‘Let’s hear him say something.’
Smith stood up. They made way for him. He walked directly up to Trenchard. He stared at him, drew a pistol from his jacket, and shot the Sub Lieutenant between the eyes.
In the event, the Midshipmen were too stunned to move, the Subs were terrified of consequence and said nothing when Lieutenant Wise who had heard the shot, came in and called for the Commander. Smith was escorted from the ship and Trenchard troubled them no longer.
In the subsequent chaos Sebold quietly abstracted the book. The evil smell left his clothes but a certain anxiety of guilt never left him. Ephraim was surprised by how little guilt he felt over the death of Trenchard. Bad things happen at sea and the man deserved it. It was just plain relief not having him around.