Chapter 4 – Captain

Part 4 – Command

Chapter 4 – Captain

The voyage home had been uneventful. Ephraim was now rested and ready to take up a new appointment. After what he deemed his successful time consolidating the British Empire in Seagull he decided he would go to Admiralty and ask for an appointment to one of the new voluntary courses on Hydraulics and Gunnery at Excellent. It would enhance his prospect of promotion to Captain. It was common for Admiralty to grant these courses as a voluntary addition before a new home appointment from foreign stations. The prospect of a meritorious career in the Navy was now beginning to fall into place.

The gunnery training in the Navy was something to which officers aspired; a smart gunnery officer was the apotheosis of a career and Ephraim looked forward to going back to Excellent. He was impressed by the discipline, the precision, the efficiency of the drills. Percy Trott was changing the whole raison d’etre of the Royal Navy with his innovations. Ephraim admired him. He liked his determination to get things done. He heard about his ideas for director firing and despite the slow, snail-like obduracy of Admiralty to innovation, he guessed that one day they would see it. The gunnery school was known as ‘the stone frigate’ and most officers lived offshore while training. It was a chance for a relaxation at local hostelries while enduring the rigours of training on board.

It was while relaxing in a local bar with a couple of new friends from Excellent, that Ephraim’s eyes were drawn to a fellow officer ordering drinks at the counter. Ephraim was wearing his fastidiously well-kept gunnery officer uniform, the fellow was wearing knee high boots and a slouchy woollen sweater – obviously a man from Vernon, the torpedo training ship moored nearby – but there was something familiar about him. The fellow turned, drink in hand. Great heavens! It was Polwhele!

What should he do? He pretended he had not seen him and kept his eyes away. Perhaps Pol had not seen him. Ephraim was embarrassed. If he stood up and went out it would be too obvious. He kept his head down and made conversation with Harley, next to him.

‘My dear fellow!’ the voice behind interrupted him, a hand was stretched out before him. For a moment Ephraim was speechless. What could he say? Polwhele obviously bore him no ill will. Ephraim was ashamed to know he was the one bearing the ill will. Pol should not have rushed off like that, been so angry when he was only trying to help save him from making a terrible mistake. And now he didn’t know whether he was married or not, so what could he say. Should he introduce him now to his friends?

He stood up and words came,

‘This is my friend Richard Polwhele. We go back a long way. If you will excuse us, we have things to discuss, some catching up to do.’ And he pulled his chair out, took Richard’s arm and shepherded him over to a quiet table. It took a little while but Polwhele was beaming with such delight all the while and apologising for his bad behaviour at the last meeting, that Ephraim too was melting.

‘You must come and meet my wife…’

Ephraim refrained from saying who is she or asking anything about her. He simply agreed and they arranged a meeting for the following weekend.

‘I live in Trussell Square when we are in London,’ said Polwhele, ‘But we are with Fitzmaurice and Earl Harden in his Portsmouth residence at the moment. Fitz will be pleased to see you. Gail is there as well.’

‘My goodness, what a day!’ Ephraim looked stunned.

‘How is William? I have not seen him since that business with the Chinese Pirates.’ He reflected on the conflict of feelings he was having about these two erstwhile friends. What did he know about Fitzmaurice now, what did Polwhele know about William? How could Notables stay friends with such distance and disparities of experience between them?

When Polwhele stood on the steps of the Earl’s residence in Portsmouth, he was met at the door by a Butler who removed his coat and ushered him into the drawing room.

‘I believe you are expected sir. I think the guests are assembled.’

‘Oh, there you are, Ephraim, come and meet Lilly.’

Polwhele came towards him in a smart smoking jacket, Ephraim wished he was wearing his new velvet one. Polwhele held his hands out to both of them, ‘Lily, meet Lieutenant Ephraim Browne, Lieutenant Browne – Lady Vane. Lily is from America, – Boston.’

A most attractive, slender young lady swathed in a fashionable gown of lemon-yellow silk, smiled at him.

The impropriety of what Ephraim had once thought in regard to Lily, threatened to overwhelm him.

The evening was a delight. Lily was as charming as she was graceful. Her trans-Atlantic accent was an intriguing novelty and Earl Harden in his old age was as welcoming as ever to stimulating young newcomers. Polwhele introduced him to the Earl of Standish and the Honourable Percy Louch. It was certainly an upper echelon affair!

Towards the end, Fitzmaurice took Ephraim aside,

‘So good to see you Browne, I read of your exploits in the islands, causing a bit of trouble at home, eh? Not as much as poor old Gail got, up the Yangtse. William is here now,’ he said, ‘We got to know each other when we were in China together. He’s staying with us for the time being. Come and say hello.’ He opened the door leading to a small bedroom on the ground floor,

‘He sleeps most of the time. He never got over that experience on the Yangtse, being holed up in a shed and getting away nearly half dead with fever, just lies there half conscious now and writing poetry.’ Sure enough, there was a pile of scribbled papers by the bed.

‘I’ll tell him you came. He will be pleased.’ Fitz shut the door, ‘Best not wake him.’

‘Can nothing be done?’

‘We are doing our best. Father is talking to someone in Harley Street.’

‘We can’t even blame this on the Navy – just ‘man’s inhumanity to man’,’ Ephraim sighed. ‘I saw him before I went to Australia, thought he would do much better than this. I will keep in touch.’

When it was over and Ephraim had paid his respects to the Earl and made his farewells, he reflected on his own future. Polwhele had done well for himself and he really had no envy for him. Apart from the delightful Lily, he had no desire to live in more exalted social circumstances but when he returned to his room he looked at the letters which now accompanied him everywhere and were getting longer and more interesting with each missive. He read the last one – a lot about school and a passing reference to grandmother and the usual finish,

‘When will I see you, father?
Will I ever see you?
Can I come on your boat?’

A memory came into his head, the black man racing to rescue his child in the village they were burning. It was time he rescued his own child. The child needed a proper father and a mother. He had never had a mother and regretted it. His child had had neither. He would put that right. He would find a woman to marry who would be a wife to him and a mother.

It would not be difficult. The child needed a home and so did he. Any decent woman would do – there would never be another Emily – and he would not want to go through that again, a widow who wanted some security and was happy to look after a child, that would do. His father had left him a small sum of money and he had been a careful officer where expenses were concerned. He could afford a modest villa, probably in Portsmouth where so much of his life had already been spent. He would set about it at once. He still had a couple of months at Excellent and who knows where after that. It gave him a good number of weekends to set up the new arrangement. He would find a good school for the boy who was coming up for ten now, and then he would see him whenever he put in at Portsmouth. He might need a crammer for certainly his son must go into the Training Ship. Provided he found a pleasant woman it would not even interfere that much with his own life. Naval officers rarely married before the rank of Commander and although it was really expected of any officer worth his salt, naval officers saw little of their wives. And of course, he would only take the step with the right woman. He would have a word with Polwhele and see if he had any suggestions. Perhaps Lily would know of someone.

It came about surprisingly quickly, leaving Ephraim without even the need to put out a fleece. Elizabeth Watkins was the perfect answer. She had been married to Commander Ralph, happily, and she was now somewhat lonely and had never had a child of her own. Over several meetings arranged by Lily in her own home at Gosport, Ephraim and Elizabeth got to know each other. Elizabeth was of a comfortable age and they were of one mind in desiring only companionship. All Ephraim could think of was the excitement of, at last, meeting his son. A small villa of sufficient proportions was found, and Elizabeth was delighted to furnish it and arrange for the habitation of her new family. They went up to Edinburgh together and met the grandmother and took Ephraim to see round the impressive castle which stood on the hill and walked him up Arthur’s Seat. He was an impressively tough little chap and outran his father, reaching the top before him. They were happy. It all confirmed Ephraim’s belief, God was good and knew what He was doing, ‘The Lord was his Shepherd.’

He thought he would share that view with Polwhele.

‘No, it’s just the way the game goes, old chap. Nothing to do with God. You have to play the cards you are given and see how it works out.’

‘Well, it seems to be working out well for you now, Pol.’

Ephraim would like to have pushed the thought further but Polwhele wasn’t interested.

Ephraim began to feel concern as to his next posting. Weeks were passing. He chatted over the matter to Fraser who had arrived in Portsmouth. He was pleased to catch up with his old friend.

‘Well, I don’t suppose Admiralty will send me back to a gunboat and I wouldn’t mind an administrative post with his Lordships, but I hope I hear soon. I don’t want to stay off the active list even on full pay, like Sebold is at the moment. He got his captaincy, by the way.’

‘Yes, surprised he didn’t get it earlier. Bit surprised I got mine. Heard at the Cape on the way back. Not quite sure what I did to deserve it?’

‘Oh, come on, father eminent MP? Not that you didn’t deserve it old fellow, you were longer out there than me and it wasn’t easy, was it? Amazing we didn’t either of us go down with that fever! What has been happening to you? Got yourself married, yet?’

‘No, definitely not! Other irons in the fire. I hope to take over at Walsall when Pa has finished! I always said we need more people like Berryford in the House to wave the flag for the Navy or we soon won’t have a flag to wave.’

Ephraim laughed.

‘I want to talk to you about Bowen.’ Fraser looked serious.

‘Haven’t a clue where he is at the moment. Has he got his Captaincy?’

‘I doubt it. I really am concerned about the fellow. I always liked him, very amenable. It really is a bit of a story and I hope I’m wrong. You remember the incredible Stollman?’

‘Well not quite incredible, he always looked as if he was going to pass out when we were in Peerless. Would never say anything. Strange fellow after all that bombast in the Training Ship.’

‘Well, he is ill now, at home. Had to leave the Navy. He knows Bowen, they are part of the same circle.’

‘What circle?’

‘That’s the problem. You know about Oscar Wilde, of course, died of Meningitis.’

‘Who hasn’t?’

‘Well of course you might say there are many circles associated with him. My pa takes an interest in all this as an MP and I’ll cut the story short. Keep it to yourself – only telling you because of Notables and Bowen. Stollman told me Gifford and Bowen attend one of these aristocratic circles in London. Of course, Gifford is out of the Navy now, but Bowen is not. He is in the running for Captain – unbelievable he should take the risk! If it gets out, he’s done for. I really think we must do something. Warn him of the danger. He is open to blackmail any minute with Stollman knowing, perhaps already.’

‘Well, I’m not sure. It’s like the Training Ship. If he takes them down, they take him down. The whole thing is quite extraordinary. I suppose if you write an advisory letter, I could put my name to it, and perhaps the others, sort of a round robin?’

‘Well, it is something.’

Ephraim wondered why Fraser was always so concerned about Bowen – was he that way himself? He thought little more about it since news of his first commission as Captain arrived at last. Great was his relief as he opened the envelope from Admiralty and found his appointment was to the cruiser HMS Vogue in the desirable Mediterranean Fleet stationed at Malta under the up and coming Admiral Phisher. He wondered how he would feel after all the joy and pain of having been there with Emily, but his pragmatic self reminded him of the quiet, stable life he was now promised with Elizabeth and Ephraim. He could enjoy the present without losing the good memories of the past.

Letters of congratulation arrived: a long letter from Mason – the last time he had seen him was at the meeting of Notables when they were all in Malta. Since then Mason had been with Percy Trott and attached to the Naval brigades at LadySmith and Tientsin. It seemed Trott had taken Mason rather under his wing when he was at Whale Island and Mason had developed an interest and ability with guns which kept him busy in tight places, when he was not castigating the government and evangelising the Jews.

….The government have been outrageous. Percy gave them all the details of his dotter years ago and Admiralty said they would improve on it. Of course, they haven’t. It is exactly the same as he said, and we lost lots of lives while we waited for it. It was the same thing with the railway to Tientsin, Percy drew up all the plans and the government delayed the material. Percy did a clever thing at Ladysmith, he put two ladders on top of each other so we could get height for the dotter when the land was too flat. And it was actually Percy that got the railway working and the armoured guns on to it.

Of course, Percy says it is all a matter of jealousy that makes such Admiralty obstruction. I am inclined to think he is right.

Glad to say my time table in the last few years has left good time for the Seaman’s institute and we have done some good meetings with Spurgeon. King Mall is a help with the meetings and I have done some good work with the Jews. (A thought came to Ephraim – was it his own ambivalence about the Jews that contributed to his reservations about Mason’s evangelical enthusiasm).

So glad to hear about your Captaincy – a just reward for all that empire work amongst the misguided natives. Have to say mine, as you might guess, is due to Percy.

Hope to see you soon, it would be great if we could get the Notables together now you are back home. Where are all the others I wonder?

Ave atque vale …. John Mason

My dear Ephraim,

What has it been like in our far flung empire? Have you learned to war dance with the natives? Race your gunboat with the canoes? At least you have not been eaten. No seriously, hope you had a good time. Looking forward to seeing you.

Have been working at Admiralty, aide-de-camp for Third Lord Stevens. Quite a decent berth now we can persuade the First Lord to release some money. Stead did a good job with the Pall Mall Campaign. Can see the results now. More ships, more bases, proper drive for efficiency and professionalism now. Have been working First Lord Selborne not to mention that powerhouse Phisher. He had excellent ideas on improving scientific and practical naval education at Osborne and now they are both making it work at Dartmouth – don’t know if you have heard of the Selborne reforms down there among the natives. It was good to see the queen at Osborne.

Haven’t seen much of the Notables. We are rather insular at Admiralty. Met Polly and his amazing on leave – what a turn up! Heard some funny rumours about Bowen. What are Fraser and Mason doing these days? Good if we could get together. Congratulation on your Captaincy – expecting mine any day!

Onwards and upwards …your friend, Charles

He received a letter, carefully and painstakingly printed out, from William,

Dear Ephraim,

Many congratulations on your appointment as Captain. I am sure you will make an excellent leader and guide. I will never forget your help to me that first night on the Training Ship and your expertise in the matter of climbing!

See you again some time.

Your friend, William Gail

Lieutenant Browne,

Just a note to welcome your news. WHAT A DARK HORSE YOU ARE! Just heard that you are married again from Admiral Lyon. He didn’t know, he said, until he had to send on some official correspondence. Well, I suppose we always had so much else to think of with one problem following another, but anyway belated congratulations, have a drink on me and I hope to be in Portsmouth soon so perhaps see you there.

With best regards,

Captain Harold Turner

Ephraim was pleased to hear from Turner. It was Turner who had given him his First Lieutenant posting and now he had this good appointment to Vogue, a new second class armoured cruiser. She was the fastest of her class, displaced 12,000 tons, held 30 QF Guns and 2 Torpedo tubes, and she carried 760 men. Ephraim was her first Captain. He would be her best.

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