Part 3 – Lieutenants
Chapter 5 – God Disposes
Lieutenant Browne and Emily were the talk of Malta – not because of the scandal of possible resignation and actual marriage, but because of the nature of Emily to a company of men. They were not used to a ‘new woman’; a woman who while doing all she could to forward women’s rights was, moreover, a young woman of great charm and some beauty and who, delightfully, had an income of her own. Parties and gatherings of all sorts and picnics and tennis matches were held at her behest in the ample gardens of the impressive villa which the newly married couple had rented on the hill above Valetta in the prestigious Templar Street. Ephraim had made some remonstrance at the use of her money,
‘Darling, I believe I am supposed to provide for you!’
But since she had said categorically, ‘It is evident that I am not going to live for ever, so my inheritance will not run out before I do,’ he saw no reason to disagree with it and enfolded himself once again in her enticing arms and followed her instructions.
Ephraim surprised himself by his enjoyment of the activities of the island. The Navy was changing. Malta was becoming increasingly popular with officers. Not only was it a strategic base it was starting to get a reputation as one of the more desirable, naval social bases, where ‘interest’ and entertainment went hand in hand. A relaxed life provided advancement in sporting opportunities and possible promotion, without the hard work and danger of outlying foreign fields. There was a sensation of feeling almost at home in Malta at the comfortable centre of things. As a new lieutenant he knew what it was to feel the glow of popularity with his peers not because of himself but because of Emily, and since it demanded nothing of him, he was happy. He did not even mind the disapproval of senior ranks, ‘What’s that young pup up to now?’ He knew his situation was not universally admired and created a certain reservation in the wardroom. He knew the naval matrons were scandalised by Emily Browne’s talk of rights for women, her willingness to air her views on all occasions. When Emily Browne was holding an ‘At Home’, the older naval wives shuddered, and the younger ones were excited. But when it was heard that she wanted to start a society to encourage Women’s Suffrage, and was holding a public meeting to that end, the Rear Admiral, Sir Gerald Blewett was sent to see her.
‘My dear young Lady, I fear your immaturity is leading you astray. We have no room here for the worse aspects of life at home. I understand there has been some radical talk of rights for women in London, and although I am not totally opposed, it is hardly fitting that naval wives should concern themselves with such things on one of her Majesty’s naval bases.
‘With due respect Admiral, I would remind you that I am not just a naval wife, I am a woman who happens to be the wife of an officer serving in the Royal Navy and I take my responsibilities accordingly. But lest I destroy the Royal Navy by my activities and upset the sensibilities of its senior officers and corrupt the young wives, will it content you that I simply hold a meeting to discuss the Philosophy of the great J S Mill.’
‘Madam, I am too old to have the wool pulled over my eyes. I see what you are about, and that you are confirmed in your own renegade philosophies and activities. Your husband will hear of these unseemly words to a senior officer. I will not beat about this intransigent bush any more. I bid you good day.’
‘Allow my maid to see you out, Admiral,’ said Emily. She quite liked to see herself as a bush – green and fertile and one of those that you had to keep cutting down to stop it spreading. She hoped Ephraim would not mind it growing in his garden.
Emily’s fame was already spreading. One morning her maid appeared in a very agitated state: ‘Madam, person at the door. From church, madam, I must let him, I think.’
‘Of course, Marie, tell him I will be there in a moment.’
Someone from the church? Whoever was that likely to be? The rector of St Paul’s perhaps. He and Ephraim were always having deep discussions. She gave her attire a quick glance in the drawing room mirror, smoothed down the taffeta of her crinoline skirt, patted some stray hairs in place and prepared to meet the new visitor. He was certainly not the Rector. He was resplendent in scarlet and silk, he stood in the drawing room frowning in judgement before he had even met her. Obviously, some dignitary from the Catholic Church. A Cardinal?
‘Madam, it has come to my ears that you are inviting people to a meeting concerning the wicked notion of the rights of suffrage being passed on to women. My good woman I have sojourned in London and know something of the evil of this notion, that women are not to be subject to the God given, patriarchy of men over women. Women may delude themselves as to their nature, the Church has no such delusion. You may have the wickedness to vie with Our Lord in the creation of His universe, you may wish to overthrow the ordained nature of the world, ‘male and female created he them’. The female was taken from the man to be subject to his desire from the time of the expulsion from Eden to the resurrection.’ Emily was taken aback by the vehemence and archaic attitude of this man.
‘What about, ‘In the kingdom of God there is neither East nor West neither male nor female’; there is equality of sexes before God even in the Bible.’ Emily was going to enjoy this. It was not often she had the chance to pit her argument against someone as interested in the argument as she was. But it was not to be. The dignitary in scarlet turned on his heel.
‘Madam, I have nothing further to say to you. I suggest you go to confession at once,’ and not waiting to be seen out, he left.
The encounter had disappointed her. She reflected upon events. The Naval and Catholic authorities in Malta were against her. Did that matter? It was not in her way to bludgeon people into understanding, she knew how entrenched such opinions were. She would neither embarrass Ephraim, nor upset the Royal Navy, by insisting on holding public meetings, and many of her friends here were devout Catholics. She would just have to go underground and by private gatherings and intimate conversation try to extend her cause.
Ephraim’s cause had been extended by news of a new appointment. His time at Malta was coming to an end and rather than the resignation he had envisaged, since Emily was doing well in the more tropical climate and had assured him she was well enough for more years in the service, he was happy to take up the new appointment. He was appointed 2nd Lieutenant to HMS Hera for commission to report on the Transit of Venus. It was a commission that sounded to his liking. There would be a deal of organisation involved, his mathematical ability would be called upon and above all it would not only be interesting, but it would also be pacific. He did not think there would be much killing in relation to confirming the actions of the heavenly planets. He must read up on some astronomy.
The next thing Emily must do, she thought, was to go to the doctor because there was a vague possibility that the thing she had never envisaged happening might have happened. The doctor was encouraging but the news struck Emily with fear.
‘I see that you have the evidence of tuberculosis but so do so many ladies. With good care and a good healthy regime, you should be able to bear a child and live to bring it up. You might go to Switzerland, I can recommend an excellent sanatorium.’ Emily had been aware of the blood on her handkerchief occasionally and the odd coughing spasm, but she had never taken her tuberculosis seriously. The doctor was right – so many ladies had it, and Ephraim had never mentioned it after offering his resignation to Captain Turner as an excuse to leave the Navy without disgrace. She would not tell him, why worry him, and the doctor had said she would be alright. She was young and she would get over it or if not, she would just have to trust her heavenly father (unlike her own) and deal with it. Not everyone died of tuberculosis. She was certainly not going to talk of Switzerland and sanatoriums to Ephraim. She was going to be a mother. She was going to teach her daughter to be ‘a new woman’.
She gave the happy news to Ephraim the following day,
‘My dearest, you are going to be a father!’
Ephraim was pleased, he knew it was a good thing and he was delighted for Emily but a little nonplussed for himself. What would it be like to have a baby? What would he do with it? Oh well, babies did grow up did they not, and as soon as the boy could be educated and share conversations, he too would delight in it. But good heavens, what if it was a girl? Emily would have her voting, before she was out of diapers.
‘If it was a girl?’ The thought came back to Ephraim, ‘How lovely – she would be just like Emily!’ But then, and the thought struck him like a spear thrust in his heart, she would die! She had tuberculosis! She might not live to see the child even if it was safely born. He had noticed the blood on her handkerchief, the moments when she had to catch her breath. Of course, he had never mentioned it, she didn’t seem to notice it and he did not want to upset her by talking of it. He would say nothing of it now. Presumably the doctor had not felt it to be of great importance, so it need not be mentioned . He would trust in the Lord and leave it to His will. However, he would obviously have to think about resigning again if Emily became any worse.
Emily continued in apparent vigorous health. The Maltese air in the house on the hill, was good for her. She would continue to host parties, picnics and at homes in their new abode for as long as she could. She had arranged something special for the following week. The fleet was coming in and Ephraim was looking forward to it,
‘I believe Sebold and Bowen and Mason will be in. It will be good to get a few of the old Notables together again.’ He dare not mention William Gail. Where was he now?
Malta was alive with excitement at the news that the rest of the Mediterranean fleet was coming in – some main warships for exercise and an accompanying flotilla. There was a fluttering of hearts among the ladies and an increase of commercial ambition amongst the traders. Ephraim popped in to visit the Dockyard Institution – he would get all the news there. He heard that Favourite, with Sebold and Mason aboard, was expected with the fleet on Thursday, the weather being favourable and today being Tuesday, he would discuss with Emily such preparations as would be useful.
‘I don’t want to tire you my dear, but do you think we might arrange a small reception party on Friday. I will send invitations to the ships, and we could offer a degree of refreshment. I will send the invitations by name and hope that we may see at least Seb and Mason again. Of course, we will include William, but I wonder if he will come.’
It was unlike Emily to feel insecure in the matter of entertainment. She was aware of her attraction as a woman and regarded it as a duty to the sisterhood to retain it as much as possible but there were occasions when she looked at the traces of blood on her handkerchief and feared that her coughing might be getting worse and that attraction would not last for ever. She remembered the haggard, drawn faces of women she had seen in the hospital when she visited it with her mother, women suffering from the final depredation of tuberculosis, and she shuddered. She feared for the baby now making its presence felt and thought of the women from lower classes not protected like her by status and money. Anyway, soon her pregnancy would prevent her from doing anything. Her main worry about today’s hospitality stemmed from her anxiety about William and Ephraim. She knew how much her husband cared about the break up in their relationship. It was not just a personal matter of broken friendship, it was one of the matters between him and his God. Suffice it to say he had told her,
‘I have nothing against William. I forgive him but I do not propose to beg for his friendship. We are to love our neighbours as ourselves. And I would not wish anyone to have to beg for my friendship so I will not beg for theirs. I regret it but that is all there is to say.’
It seemed the whole population of Malta lined the Grand Harbour when the fleet came in. The ships entered with manned yards, flags flying and bands playing. The weather was favourable, and Valletta was full of delight all round. It was very impressive. Ephraim and Emily stood and watched the ships come in. As she slid into the harbour, the port side of Aspire passed close by Ephraim – he saw William, with the officers drawn up below the yards, standing to attention, manning the ships. For a moment, William’s eyes registered a glad acknowledgement, then they turned away. Ephraim’s heart fell. Emily registered this and determined to do something about it.
The ship had not been long at anchor when it was evident the mail had arrived. William thumbed through his bundle. To hear from loved ones again was another bonus for being in harbour and it was evident that there was mail not only from loved ones at sea but from other sources ashore. The Seaman’s Institute had provided leaflets, the Churches had sent details of services and welcome parties and there was a single letter from someone in Malta which he did not recognize. There was a lightness and fragrance about the cream envelope which made him think it might be from a lady. An assignation?
He opened it,
Please forgive me if you think this letter is wrong and I should not interfere. I know you were very unhappy with Ephraim when he first proposed marrying me and I know it was because of your anxiety for my welfare. Ephraim told me that you thought the Navy was no life for a married woman and that since I had the beginnings and slight evidence of illness he was wrong to proceed in the matter. I think you will also be aware of my very passionate interest in the subjection of women, brought about in some measure by my own father’s attitude to me and to my observation of the very sad and difficult life many women suffer in this generation. Ephraim has always understood and shared my point of view. He has never wanted anything other than my benefit and welfare. The only thing which stands in the way of that is your present attitude to my husband. He says little about it but I know he feels deeply the break in your relationship with him. I say break, for surely William, this can now be mended. I suspect you are as sad about it as he is. So please, William, for the pleasant memory of the life we shared together earlier and for the benefit of all three of us, do accept the invitation and come to the reception. Let us all enjoy it together.
With my true love and care, Emily
Emily had some trepidation in sending this letter. Ephraim rarely went against her in anything but when he did there was no moving him. Hidden underneath was a formidable temper when roused and she simply did not know how he would regard such a letter – would it be an act of unforgivable lese majesty towards him, or would he be glad that she had enabled a step of reconciliation. Would William come to the reception party?
She looked around the drawing room; it was time the seats had new covers, she plumped up the cushions, the tables were set with fruit and the little cakes the Maltese were so fond of, the sun was shining on the garden, and extra tables and benches were set for the officers and whatever ladies they were able to muster. Her usual confidence and delight in such entertainment was curtailed by her anxiety over whether William would come or not, and what Ephraim would say.
‘Polwhele will always find some female to escort him if he comes,’ said Ephraim, coming through the door.
‘I thought it was the other way around.’
‘Not with Polwhele – and it is not always a lady. But he will be more circumspect with you my dearest.’ He lifted his chin for her to fix his necktie, the latest thing in silk stock that the local emporium could provide.
Emily was in her best blue dress of sprigged muslin and lace edging. The hoops of her crinoline were fashionably smaller and elongated her delightful, still unobtrusive, waist. Ephraim’s heart stalled at the sight of her.
Marie was at the ready and Pedro had been brought in as a butler.
The first visitors were announced.
‘Midshipman Davies and Midshipman Stokes.’
The two Middies stood on the threshold in some confusion. Were they too early? Had they got the time, right? But no, other carriages were coming up to the door. One disgorged a bunch of laughing Sub Lieutenants and the other a grave 2nd Lieutenant with his wife.
‘My dear Mrs. Lane and Lieutenant Lane, how kind of you to come. Do come and meet some of the younger officers.’
Other carriages were vying to decant their occupants. Numbers grew and there was a happy sound of voices and a clink of glasses. Emily was attentive but watched anxiously. Would William come through the door or not? She knew William, he would never be late, if he did not come soon he would not be coming.
Then she saw Ephraim look up, arrested in conversation, as Gail walked towards him holding out his hand. Thank God William was too honest a man to continue holding a torch that would not burn, just to save his face, thought Emily. She caught a few words as she slipped past, to assure herself that all was well.
‘I know you have been making her happy. She told me so and I can see that,’ William said, as he watched Emily laughing happily with First Lieutenant Brougham, ‘And I have told her she is to keep you happy.’
‘I’m sure she was delighted to be told,’ said William, ‘But that will not be difficult.’
Ephraim was anxious to show William how much he appreciated his new understanding.
‘Stay and have supper with us, William. Emily will be over the moon. She has said little, but I know she has barely forgiven me for allowing this break in our relationship.’
‘Would love to, old man. But only got away from the Commander by a sleight of hand so must get back now. Just wanted an opportunity to come over for the occasion. Knew you and she would be concerned if you did not see me. Have got to be back on watch in an hour – have called the wherry up so will say goodbye now and come over as soon as possible for a good talk. Will tell you all the news of the Notables and the ship – as much as I have and perhaps you have heard some more. Must dash now – see you again soon old fellow. Goodbye for now.’
Emily was delighted to see her brother and Ephraim friends again. The only shadow over this lovely occasion where everybody seemed delighted to see everybody else and nobody sulked on the side-lines or drew too much attention to themselves,was the fact that she had begun to feel unwell. It was not morning sickness, she was pretty well over that now and it had troubled her very little. This was a creeping nausea complete with a sense of impending fever and a sore throat. She did not want to spoil the party so she would say nothing to Ephraim. She tried to smile at Polwhele who had arrived so unexpectedly, he was such a dear, perhaps she would ask him to bring her a glass of water, she simply must sit down. She turned to him as he approached her and to her horror, vomited at his feet. There was a great commotion,
‘Oh, the poor dear, it must be the baby!’
‘I always said she not do this, her condition.’ Marie came rushing over,
‘Malta fever!’ Pedro pronounced.
‘Madame, madame, you must go upstairs. Come with me.’ Polwhele had planned to politely disappear but seeing Emily suddenly overwhelmed, too sick and anxious even to be embarrassed, and Pedro rushing up with cloth and container shooing onlookers away, he insisted on taking her into his arms like a baby, wiped her face and called for Ephraim to come at once. He demanded of Marie to be shown to a sofa where he could lay Emily to rest. There were cries for Ephraim, the husband, to come to his wife. Where was he? Not at his own reception!
Ephraim had slipped into the library for a moment. He wanted to get the Anglican vicar’s opinion on what he thought to be an important manuscript relating to the Templars which he had been fortunate enough to persuade an indigent Maltese to sell to him. Both men rushed out at the sound of distress.
The next few days were agony for Ephraim despite Dr Piercy seeming to know his stuff and saying the illness would not upset the baby or make worse the tuberculosis. It was simply a case of Malta fever, nobody seemed to quite know what caused it, but he had seen many sufferers and they generally recovered after rest and good nursing. Emily would be alright again in a matter of days. And it seemed that the doctor was right. Marie nursed her tirelessly and tenderly, constantly replacing soaked sheets and sponging her fevered body. At first Emily could take little other than water and a thin beef broth but gradually the fever subsided, and she recovered.
‘You have been so good to me Marie. How shall I ever repay you?’
‘Repay me now madam and you drink little milk. You like Milk, good for babies. Milk good for you.’
Emily felt she could indeed now manage a little of her favourite milk. She took a small amount and lay back in the cool sheets. Marie smiled and took the empty glass from her.
Ephraim came in to say good night and gently leaned over her to take as much of her as he could into his arms and kissed her gently.
‘Oh, my beloved Emily, I do believe we have you back again. You gave me such a fright.’
For the next few days Emily lay quiet. She drank her milk, ate a little and talked less.
Then something went wrong. During the night, the sickness returned, her throat started to swell, and her head burned. Doctor Piercy came and said nothing could be done.
Ephraim sat with her until the twilight of the next day and prayed as he had never prayed before, beseeching God to save his beloved wife, calling on the Lord he loved to honour His promises. Maria was in constant attention, fussing around her dear Madam as she slipped in and out of consciousness. Ephraim watched her hands working under the blankets, easing the sick woman, struggling to find something. Emily stirred, and Maria drew out a small, scrap of flesh and bone which emitted a tiny sound. Ephraim did not hear, would look no longer! He gave a cry of despair and fled the room.
Emily never recovered consciousness.