Part 2 – Midshipmen
Chapter 4 – To Sydney
Three days later another incident occurred. Milesea gave a wrong order at evolutions and the helmsman hastened to obey. The ship gave a sudden lurch and an able seaman fell from the topyard. The incident did nothing to further Captain Milesea’s career and Ephraim wondered how many more deaths would be recorded before the voyage finished.
‘It’s not Milesea’s fault,’ said Fraser, ‘It was Harding trying to be fastest to the top for the record. The men are running a book on it, all the ships are trying to beat the shortest time for evolutions for the glory of it.’
‘Well, you have to admit that it is a pretty poor reason for men to die. The Captain should put a stop to it, not encourage it,’ said Ephraim. ‘We shall reach Hope Bay soon and already seven men in the fleet have lost their lives.’
‘Not all deaths have arisen from falls from the rigging, some from sickness and other acccidents,’ cautioned Fraser.
‘And starvation probably – have you noticed how thin we’re getting?’ Hepplewhite pulled his trousers to show the gap between his waistband and flesh.
‘Thank God we shall get some more grub soon. Not long till we reach Australia now. Polly says they have been reduced to scavenging the marrow from their meat bones in Broomward, and I am beginning to think the weevils in the bread have taken on more flesh than us – not exactly manna in the wilderness. Let’s hope Uncle Jim turns his attention to that,’ and Fraser walked off to have a word with Sub Lieut. Gifford. He hoped to persuade him to a game of chess later. Gifford was one of the best players and Fraser liked a challenge. So did the Sub Lt. – hence his willingness to play with a ‘wart’ despite the catcalls.
The challenge when it came was not one Fraser had anticipated. It was an evening just before turning in. He noticed Bowen coming out of Sub Lieut. Gifford’s cabin looking distressed.
‘What’s he been up to, Bowen? Laying about with his dirk again?’
‘No seriously, old fellow, you look shaken! Wouldn’t have thought Gifford was that bad! What did he do?’
A thought came to Fraser.
‘What did he want?’
‘Mind your own business!’ Bowen gave Fraser a hefty shove and moved off.
Bowen was distressed. He had often felt there was something different about him. He didn’t always laugh at the fellows jokes or wanted to read what they did. Even now, at nearly seventeen, he hadn’t quite worked out what it was. Or whether it was. Was he that way? He knew some of the fellows at Brymore had crushes on him – but then that was school – that was natural. He certainly hadn’t had any crushes on them. Even in the Training Ship there had been talk about that sort of thing but crushes weren’t much in evidence. They were all too busy and too tired. Of course there had been that dismissal of a Cadet in the first term, but no evidence that would have enlightened him as to his own nature ever presented itself until tonight.
Tonight, when Sub Lieut. Gifford had asked him to play chess with him in his own cabin, he had been surprised. It was a great honour. But he knew he had established himself as a bit of a chess champion and chess was getting popular in the ship. Lieutenant Wise had taken third place in the International Chess Championship in London and was organising a competition for Sydney. It must be that Gifford just wanted somewhere quiet to challenge him so of course he had agreed. The pieces had been set out and Bowen was soon studying the board, head down and elbows on the rickety table, making his opening bid feint of his Kings Gambit, when Gifford had suddenly interrupted,
‘God, you’re a good looking sod, Bowen!’
Bowen looked up to see Gifford’s eyes consuming him, and with a cry of despair like a wounded animal, the Sub Lieutenant had dropped his head on the chess board, scattering all his well ordered pieces to the floor, and was weeping.
In an instant Bowen’s body and soul rose to meet the man with the bowed head who sat before him; his heart called out to show him comfort and understanding. But his mind told him only one thing, he must get out!
Sub Lieut. Gifford did what he could to avoid Bowen after that. Yet somehow it was Bowen who was always in the watch he was attached to. It was Bowen who was in the sail crew he was supervising, it was Bowen who was assigned to the beef boat when Gifford was running it, it was Bowen who was with Gifford in the Regatta boat. Gradually Bowen accepted the change in his psyche and knew it was what he had been waiting for – this was his joy. He was pleased to have the Sub in charge of his watch, he was pleased to have him instructing the seamanship class, he was thrilled when he was chosen with Gifford for the Regatta ship. He began to look for Gifford, hope he might run into him, Soon, Gifford was his first waking thought. But there would be no more chess games.
Fraser also wanted to think. He went down to his berth in steerage. He had noticed a change in Bowen and he guessed what it was. He knew something of this from the sympathy he had for his own father, who had been compromised as a boy in the military. It had not prevented him from regretting the knowledge of his father’s secret which might still come out and do him as much harm as Bowen might suffer, – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. If no force was involved, and why would Bowen not say so if it was, Bowen would be culpable; and Fraser knowing this could happen would be responsible if he did nothing. He took the code of the Notables seriously. Good heavens there were enough officers these days who did not. And Bowen would ruin his young life if he got a reputation. It would ruin his naval career and his social life. He could never be publicly accepted as a gentleman whatever career he found. The sympathy he had for his own father had not prevented him from fearing the threat of a secret which might come out even now and do him as much harm as Bowen might suffer, – the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. He must talk to Bowen, make him listen, make him understand.
It was difficult to get Bowen to listen. Bowen kept avoiding him and the work of the ship was increasing in intensity as the frigate neared its final destination, Hope Bay in Australia. Formby ordered a continuous programme of evolutions and smart drills. Hepplewhite missed Smith. He found the constant repetition of drills tiring and tedious without Smith to teach. The Admiral was always making signals to shift jib, spanker or topgallant sails, some days were entirely given to squadron evolution sailing. Other hours had to be spent in the schoolroom, preparing for the exams which would enable the Middies to become Sub Lieutenants themselves. The quiet competence and dedication of Commander Drayton, in the face of Milesea’s laissez faire meant that by the time Thebe reached Sydney, she was leading in the Regatta races, and despite losing her fore tops’l in a gale she was able to make good and ready to lead the fleet into Hope Cove.
The heat began to take its toll of the crew and the long sail was producing diminishing food and increasing irritability of the officers and the blue jackets. As they travelled south, whenever any sea was on, the closure of the cabin ports made it almost unbearable in the ship, thought the Mids. Sicknesses that might have faded away or been fought off in a cool environment gained the upper hand in the stifling atmosphere of the gun room or the steerage. Accidents increased. Four seamen on the Diana fell to some form of continental dysentery and had to be buried at sea wrapped in their hammocks. One young Middy, Halbert, who had been trying to keep his hold on life against consumption in the face of the heat and the lack of fresh food, gave up the ghost. There had been an incidence of drowning when a lifebuoy was lost from the incompetence of one of the newer Bristol Mids.
The lack of fresh meat exacerbated tensions as meagre rations of salt beef like leather, and the loss of bacon and biscuit, brought them to almost starvation point as they neared Sydney. The junior middies suffered all the more from the dirks of the Subs, and Fraser fretted increasingly at the sight of Bowen’s pale face amongst the leathery tans of his companions. The evening games with Gifford seemed to have stopped to Fraser’s relief, and with the increased drills and exigencies of the work there seemed to have been little opportunity for Gifford to wreak damage on the younger Bowen.
They got through the dangerous Bass Straits with little trouble, despite an unexpected storm which blew up and had the Mids rushing for the ropes as they heard the sudden snapping of worn out sails and saw the blinding rain unleash itself from the sky. With relief the storm died as quickly as it had arrived and great was the excitement as the Flying Squadron came into ‘pretty little Hobart’ for a brief visit, and a welcome Christmas dinner, before sailing on to its final destination at Hope Cove, Sydney. They were met by a crowd of people on the Heads waiting for the sight of the fleet, beating up under all plain sail, surrounded by every manner of yacht or boat that could be found. Navy and populace were ready for the all the picnics, entertainments, parties and visitations that the fashionable world of Sydney could contrive. A public picnic started the visit. The Officers responded by opening their ships to enthusiastic visitors, children and dignitaries alike, and giving their own theatricals later. A steamer full of meat and vegetables was sent round for the blue jacket. But as Admiral Formby was at pains to tell everyone, they were ‘only on a flying visit’. Nevertheless, in the short time the Middies enjoyed everything, not to mention the welcome attentions of the Fishing Fleet.
‘Did you see that wonderful girl last night, that one I did the Volta with?’
‘That was no Volta, Polly – it was a two step – trust you not to know the difference.’
‘Well, at least I danced, Browne, and that was more than you and Fraser did.’
‘I’m not one for dancing as you well know – and Hepplewhite made up for the rest of us. However,’ Ephraim smiled, ‘It is a long time since I have had such a conversation, least of all with a girl. Did you meet Martha Hutton? She is a member of the Methodist Church here and we had much in common. I shall endeavour to go to service with her on Sunday evening if I can get the Commander to give permission.’
‘Oh, I dare say he will. He’s another of those evangelical Christians.’
‘How do you know that?’ asked Sebold.
‘Well, he’s a nice fellow, and friends with Captain King .They have prayer meetings sometimes on King’s ship and he was being rowed over there the other evening.’
‘Well, I think we would all be a lot better off with just the dancing. I wish we could give up this religious stuff,’ said Sebold. ‘It just leads to trouble – Methodists , Catholics, Anglicans, high and low – let’s just have God.’
‘And a fine mess you would make of that without some instruction,’ declared Ephraim.
Captain Milesea was generous with shore leave and anxious that his junior Mids should see as much of Sydney as possible. It was old fashioned and lacked Melbourne’s sophistication but with its new buildings and vibrant life shore life, he wanted them to enjoy it before the trials of the return trip. He instructed Sub Lieut. Gifford to take a few Middies with him on a trip to the Blue Mountains in the famous new Blue Train. Sebold, Browne, Bowen and Fraser were amongst those chosen.
From the outset Fraser thought he noticed the set Gifford made towards Bowen. When it was time to get on to the train Gifford inveigled Bowen on a seat next to him. While the others were making eyes at the girls they passed and throwing around choice witticisms, Gifford kept all his attention on Bowen, and Bowen seemed similarly mesmerized. They were disinterested in the excitement of the scenery and when they arrived at the destination designated for lunch, where a couple of killicks furnished with picnic food were serving out sandwiches, they remained together in the circle which set itself up on the grass. Fraser soon lost himself in the joy of eating and having a discussion with a local governor over Parliamentary naval affairs. It was only as he finished that he brought his thoughts back to Gifford and saw that Gifford was no longer there – that Bowen was also missing. Casually, he enquired, ‘Anyone seen Bowen or Gifford?’
‘They said they were going to see the cave. Who wants to see an old cave when you can rest in the sun under the gum trees?’ and Sebold stretched himself out on the soft ground.
Apparently, it was only Gifford and Bowen. Fraser left the others lounging on the grass, admiring the distant mountain scenery and the view of the blue spruce trees far beneath them. He picked out a path following a worn sign to the little used, rarely visited, ruined remnant of a cave some distance away. It was silent and peaceful, the air was fragrant with eucalyptus and cedar. He relaxed. Why did he bother so about Gifford and Bowen, surely it was all a mistake.
Animated voices came to him on the air,
‘Don’t move! You’ll be alright! I’ll take care of it.’
Fraser broke through the scrub into the cave and saw the Sub Lieutenant with his body over the junior Midshipman on the ground,
‘Gifford, you swine!’
Fraser leapt on to the Sub at the same moment as Gifford turned Bowen’s body. Blood was seeping from his chest.
‘It’s not what you obviously think,’ said Gifford coldly, ‘And I advise you never to address a Sub Lieutenant in that way again. And Fraser saw that Gifford had made a tourniquet arrangement over Bowen’s chest.
‘It is a good thing that you have come, Fraser. Now go and fetch a couple of the other Mids. We will have to carry Bowen to the train and then down to the hospital. He is in considerable pain, poor chap. He fell on one of these sharp pointed stones sticking up from the old fire circle – the point went right through into his chest. He has a nasty cut and fractured ribs, I shouldn wonder. We’ll need to make a stretcher and keep him as steady as we can.’
Fraser ran back, shouting for the others. Sebold arrived and demonstrated his skills with a penknife cutting a few light, but strong branches from the gum trees. Polwhele produced strings which had been tied around the sandwiches and knotted them together for maximum use. Between them they made a reasonable litter. Bowen passed out as they manoeuvred him on to the makeshift bed.
The conductor at the train was helpful. He managed to locate a doctor travelling with his bag, going down to see a patient in Hope Cove. He bandaged Bowen and gave him a whiff of ether. He insisted on accompanying his new patient into the hospital. Gifford insisted on staying with the new casualty. He told Sebold to take charge of the rest of the Midshipmen and let the Commander know what had happened.
For a couple of days, the ship buzzed with excitement. Would Bowen live? Had Gifford saved his life! Would the Mids be allowed any visiting leave? Three days later Bowen was back in the sick bay of Thebe and all returned to normal. All but Fraser. He could not let it go. Bowen was like a puppy dog now, to be seen with Gifford whenever possible. Nothing, not even Fraser, could disrupt the even tenor of their days as they continued through the long but uneventful voyage home.