Part 1 – Cadets
Chapter 6 – A Notable Ending
The Notables were holding a strategy meeting on the grass behind the sports pavilion. A cricket match with the second terms held attention elsewhere.
‘We must march to Captain Sharp and own up to our part in the affair,’ said Halling, sitting down and remembering the feel of the flapjacks in the front of his drawers, ‘We mustn’t stop to think about it.’
‘Yes, it’s wrong that the leaders should suffer alone. We are all responsible. I’ll come with you Halling. Browne, you gather everybody else together and we will organise it.’ said Mason.
‘Wait a minute.’ Sebold was reflective, ‘The more of us that are birched, the more satisfied Staines will be, and the more guilty Featherstone will feel.’
‘Shouldn’t rely on that!’ said Fraser, lounging back on the grass.
‘Get up, you layabout, and go and write to your father!’ Polwhele gave him a kick.
‘But it’s not a good bargain, Seb,’ said Fraser sitting up, ‘Pol and I gain nothing from seeing you chaps suffer as well, and nothing will make Napoleon change his mind.’
Polwhele agreed, ‘Look fellows, this sort of thing happens. Don’t give yourselves up as voluntary sacrifices. Let’s keep our powder dry. Never know when we might need it. And anyway, Wren thinks Featherstone has gone down with the measles.’
‘Serve him right!’ said Bowen.
Ephraim said nothing.
Sebold was matter of fact, ‘Change what you can and accept what you can’t. It’ll be an experience, once and once only I hope.’
Polwhele was indignant, ‘It’s an outrage – all for a couple of biscuits! They needn’t think taking a pound of my flesh is justice or that it will make me a repentant sinner. It is the first real test of our mettle. Brothers, let’s go to it with heads held high!’
Bowen was sorry that it had picked him out as a trouble maker, he had hoped to keep a low profile. And now he was marked out whether he agreed or disagreed with the strategic decision.
It was perhaps Ephraim who suffered most. His name had not come up so he would be mustered with the onlookers. Yet he trembled with fear of the occasion. He who only had to watch. He who followed Polwhele’s advice too willingly. He who did not present himself for sacrifice. He was sick at the futility of his feelings. He was sick when the others decided the strategy called for no further action – since nothing could hurt the enemy or change events, nothing more could be done at this point. He did not feel that was right.
For three days, as he waited the inevitable event, Ephraim felt more and more desperate. He lost control of his imagination; pictures of himself being birched interfered with his daily prayer – what did Jesus think of him now? He could feel the exquisite torture of a birch flogging his own back, imagine how it would rip the flesh apart, how it would rip apart the flesh of his friends. He must get used to it. He thought he was getting used to it. It was becoming almost commonplace here and he knew that if the fellows thought the punishment was fair, they accepted it and made the best of it. Ephraim had managed to watch before when he did not know the cadets concerned and it seemed they were being fairly punished; the latest, Barker, had stolen from a fellow cadet. But Ephraim could not, simply could not, see the flesh of his own friends, lacerated and bleeding. He must find a way to prevent it. How could he bear it, to see his friends suffer in that way. He saw the sensible Sebold would grit his teeth and bear it, he saw Polwhele pretending that it was nothing and standing up to it like a man until he was loosed and the blood ran down his back. He just could not imagine how the attractive Bowen would take it, he the most elusive and sensitive of them all. An unlikely defender of the faith. Three brave men. Three friends. But Ephraim was not brave, he was afraid; and he must play the part of a coward. He must get out of watching the spectacle, find a way never to see such a terrible thing happen to his friends. He knew how it happened. He had already seen too much: the Cadets were all ceremoniously drawn up on the lower deck, a table was made ready, lashed into a port forward on the starboard side and a mattress lashed on to it, two corporals pulled down the breeches of the victim and secured his half naked body across the table, his hands and legs tied to two ring bolts. The doctor was ready and then the Commander told one of the corporals to ‘do his duty’ and the strokes commenced, generally around a dozen.
The terrible day came, and Ephraim joined the Cadets filing into their places as onlookers. The doctor was ready, and the ship’s company stood by. The three shirtless offenders , with breeches taken down were waiting and the mattress was lashed ready. Sebold achieved a nonchalant standing as if indifferent to the humiliation, Polwhele exuded defiance and Bowen was visibly shrinking. Ephraim reckoned he had ten minutes to make it work, while the ring bolts were secured to Seb’s arms and legs. It should work by then. He slipped the device out of his pocket, turned his head away from the fellows all intent on the picture before them, and pushed the thing resolutely into his mouth. He made himself chew and swallow, chew and swallow. Immediately, with a ghastly retching of his throat and convulsion of his stomach, the carbolic soap regurgitated. Other cadets moved away from it. There was consternation in the ranks.
‘Browne’s been sick sir.’
‘Browne can’t take it.’
‘Look at that mess!’
‘Get him out,’ roared the Sergeant at arms.
‘Come with me, young man,’ the menacing voice of the First Lieutenant was in Ephraim’s ear, ‘I think I know what you need,’ and a convulsing Ephraim was escorted to the sick bay.
After he had had his stomach unpleasantly washed out, Lieutenant James appeared to escort him, brusquely, to the Commander’s cabin. Commander Walsh was seated alone in his cabin. There were no ancillary officers in attendance. He viewed the young Cadet silently, let him stew for a bit longer. Ephraim, his stomach feeling as if a herd of elephants had charged it, tried to look up. He saw the Commander’s mouth twitch at the edges. He could not believe it, was the Commander trying to smile? His words were anything but mollifying.
‘I believe, Mr Browne, that you have been guilty of cowardice. You failed to support fellow cadets in their moment of need…’
‘Moment of humiliation, moment of cruelty,’ Ephraim could not believe it. Were these words really coming from his own tongue? Was this to be the end of his career? Flashes of distraught father came to mind.
‘I could not condone it.’
‘Nonsense Mister Browne. At this stage in your career, we are not interested in what you do, or do not condone. You demonstrated cowardice. Do not dissimulate. You demonstrated cowardice, and a certain bravery and ingenuity which may stand you in good stead later.
‘Thank God! There was to be a later, then.’
The Commander went on, ‘You must get used to this. You will see grown men crying like babes or demonstrating a strength naturally beyond them while being flogged. As an officer you will take responsibility for this, seeing that this is what the power and success of her Majesty’s navy is based on, the ability of an officer to maintain authority in the name of an orderly and civilised society. That and the skill of her seamen. If you cannot bear that responsibility, the responsibility to see and inflict necessary suffering for the greater good, Her Majesty’s Service will have no need of you, Mr.Browne. The navy is still, as in Chares the Second’s time, a place where the sea men are not gentlemen and the gentlemen are not seamen. That is why no man can join the Navy without his nomination and warranty as a gentleman and his warranty as a gentleman guarantees his behaviour as a responsible naval officer. I suggest you give that some thought to that, Mr. Browne, and if you cannot condone the sentiment, then give us your resignation.
However, as I said we will take as mitigating the offence, your strategic action which involved you in a certain amount of suffering, I believe,’ and again the Commander’s mouth twitched into a putative smile.’ You have another chance Mr Browne.’ The Commander stood up. ‘I will put you down for Number Two Punishment. Dismiss.’
Standing on the deck, drilling in the new number two punishment regime, wielding the heavy musket, Ephraim started to think. He had become used to the familiar routine of the Training Ship, he had come to like the fellowship of the Cadets but what was he really doing here, on this decrepit deck, living this decrepit life – was he really going to stand for this brutalizing existence? Where men and boys had the flesh removed from their backs! Was this really, orderly civilised society? The other Cadets had known nothing else in their public schools and crammers, but he had come from a life in a civilised Christian home. He knew how much this naval life meant to his father, how thrilled he had been when he had obtained the promise of a nomination for his son, from his friend, Admiral Gladwell. An unlikely friend, Ephraim thought, but Gladwell had appreciated his father’s sermons and was always up for a theological discussion. He remembered…, his memory failed as the punishment took its toll on the muscles of his arms , and now it was time to run round the deck with Sergeant Miles beady eyes on him, before old ‘milestones’ got heavy handed.
Up at five o’clock that morning Ephraim had already drilled until prayers at 8am and now he was doing the one and a half hours in the afternoon. He could cope with the physical pain – it was the humiliation and embarrassment of having to stand apart from the other cadets at musters and stand for another hour on deck after evening prayers that was insufferable. And, unbelievably, he had to kneel apart at prayers – he who regraded prayers as sacred! Time in the presence of God! By the time he got to the 2nd class table in the messroom with no soup, beer or second course, he felt he could stand anything. Eating his bread, he thought ruefully of give us this day our daily bread and decided anyway, that this sort of punishment had no real reflection on his crime. Heaven forbid! He would do it again if he had to. Nothing was worse than the prospect of seeing Sebold’s flesh being ripped from his body.
Later, when his aching body was lying in his hammock, his mind reverted to the subject. It would not leave him alone. The passing out exams were coming up. They held no particular trauma for him. He had been doing well as expected but what did the future hold? He would pass out as a Midshipman – probably get a posting he didn’t want to some ship with a notoriously bad gunroom, and all this birching and flogging would start all over again. Well, he supposed the Middies didn’t get flogged, but would they make him watch the seamen getting flogged. He hoped he wouldn’t get a flogging ship, like he heard the Karlborough was. Perhaps he could fail the exam, but even he could not bring himself to do that. Swallowing soap had involved no loss of self-respect but he could not bear to be a coward twice. He would have to go through with it. If being a Midshipman did not improve things, he would resign. He could hear Sebold snoring, he chucked a slipper at his bunk – nothing ever seemed to bother Sebold.
Things seemed a bit better in the morning, a bright, drying, sunshine fell across the deck and struck the young men as they clambered on to the quarterdeck for morning drill. It was even good to go climbing after a night in the cramps of a hammock said Fitzmaurice, as he put his limbs through their paces. ‘Specially good on a day like this,’ said Gail to his neighbour, as he prepared to shin up the mainmast and over the futtocks – he was surprised how he had come on in the last year. He could even begin to look forward to his time on the ropes as a Midshipman in one of the great sailing ships, up in the tops looking down on a churning sea and flying through the sky. Polwhele also, was full of excitement as he arrived on the ropes and made straight for Sebold.
‘I say Seb, have you heard? Cads on Saturday, meeting at two for Tactics.’
‘About time,’ said Sebold. ‘We need some fun. They are getting quite above their station. Heard they were throwing stones on Wednesday. Get all the Notables and anyone else you can find.’
When word went round, there was no trouble in gathering Notables and other available cadets. The local cads had been causing trouble for some time now congregating in larger numbers and obstructing unwary cadets in ones or twos found in town. Rumours were heard that they were planning something big.
‘Then we shall be ready for them,’ said Polwhele.
The tactics meeting was held in the mess, diagrams were drawn up, battle positions delineated, and provisions and weapons prepared.
It was reckoned that they would find enough cads at the creek to make it worthwhile.
Sure, enough when they arrived at the creek on the Sunday afternoon, they found fifty cads waiting for them on the road. The cads started blaguarding the Cadets and throwing stones.
‘Right,’ said Sebold, ‘Straight through them, lads, and up to the hill, ammunition at the ready!’
Polwhele led the charge and they got through and on to the hill. Fifteen more cads appeared from a side lane but a contingent of cadets pushed them back to hold them, while the cadets kept up the assault with various ammunition of sticks and stones. Sebold, in charge of tactics, organised the battle into recurring stands to hold the hill and prevent the cads from passing them. Cadets fought nobly in the various scrimmages; Polwhele got a black eye but broke his blackthorn stick across the cads back, Mason seemed everywhere flailing with something like a wooden axe he had fashioned himself which sent the enemy running. Ephraim found opportunities to demonstrate some boxing techniques on members of the opposition. Sebold got a nasty cut over his eye from a stone and Bowen busied himself staunching the blood with his handkerchief.
‘Young Gail’s got in a wax,’ said Bowen as he watched the cadet who had been hit on the back by a stone, furiously chasing the offender down the empty lane. He was just about to hit him when he almost fell into the arms of Captain Sharp, as he was about to step into the lane with his wife and daughters.
‘Stop!’ cried the Captain. ‘What are you doing?’
The Cadets also saw the Captain appear and decided a retreat was now the best option.
Gail’s heart was in his mouth. The cad was trembling. He gave his name and address. The Captain turned to Gail, ‘Who else is involved? Go and get them.’
Gail ran back to the hill, but the cads had hidden behind the hedges and still threw stones as he ran. They hit him on the back and he nearly fell.
The Notables saw what had been happening. It could not be allowed.
‘Get them!’ yelled Polwhele.
‘Take them to the Skipper!’ said Mason. They charged down the hill again and captured one or two of the cads cowering behind the bushes. They marched them to the Captain.
‘Names and addresses!’
The Cadets were disgusted that Captain Sharp only demanded names from the cads and let them go with a warning.
Captain Sharp turned, ‘I hope you licked them well!’ and with no more ado, he continued his family walk.
Despite Sharp’s unofficial support of the ‘fellows v cads’, there had to be official punishment. The whole ship was put on a reduced bread allowance. However, there were other results from Captain Sharp’s new regime. They had meat for breakfast for the first time. At the end of the year, the studies were thrown into the mess room to give more room for Cadets and a new racket court was added, ‘The ship is nothing but whitewash and paint,’ complained Fraser. A donkey engine was put on deck to pump up water from below and Cadet Captains were now to wear a silver anchor on their sleeve.
‘Oh , Lord F will love that,’ moaned Gail.
In most hearts however, it was the prospect of the coming exams that really worried them. Would they pass out with six months seniority as one of the brightest Cadets or would they be ignominiously plucked as duffers at the bottom. All were familiar with the results for Cadets in the last passing out exam. There had been a lot of thirds and some plucked. It was a crucial stage in their lives. There was much wielding of togies, encouraging their own confidence as well as teaching others their place in the naval order of things.
‘Of course, you’ll get a good posting,’ said Polwhele to Fitz, ‘You’ll be one of the Gala Lieutenants.’
‘What’s a Gala lieutenant?’
‘Don’t you know? It’s the new term for Cadets with important fathers who get them good postings.’
‘Oh,’ said Fitz, non-committally. ‘Well, you’ll do well in Maths Sebold and I guess Cicero will get the Latin prize.’
Ephraim and Sebold were lounging with others in the mess. As a passing out, one could lounge, thought Ephraim as he stretched his legs and watched others ‘sweating’, their books open on tables and laps before them. Fraser came in.
‘I say you fellows, guess what – just heard from pa – the Prince of Wales is coming to prize giving and my pater thinks I might get the Verity.’
‘Don’t see why you should want her, my pater says she can’t sail, and he should know, spent six months on her – last in all the Regattas and lumpy as a whale in the water.’
‘Ha! Whales are jolly good in the water,’ said Fraser, clipping Fitz with his Calculus.
‘Lese majesty,’ said Fritz, and clipped him back!
‘Come on, let’s get some grub, nearly eight bells, the future can wait. And it’s Saturday night!’
‘O Lord, that means dancing again.’ Polwhele groaned. He had really enjoyed his time in the Training ship but sometimes he thought compared with the birching and the minimal food, it was the dancing that he most dreaded. He was blessed with rhythm, he knew he was, it was just that the young ladies he danced with did not. They could never put their feet in the right place. It was not that he disliked the dancing, it was just that nobody else could do it properly and to be deprived of success in any field was an agony for Polwhele.
The final examination week was fast approaching. Sebold, as usual said little and seemed outwardly calm. Ephraim became more miserable by the minute, even with Sebold.
‘Shut up going on about getting a ship and being a Middy, Seb! I don’t care what you get, I don’t care whether you pass out with three months or six months seniority – you’ll get the best whatever it is. It’s me that has to sweat and mug everything up. You know how old people lose their memories and go daft. I reckon I’ve aged a hundred years in the past week. I’ve forgotten everything. Tell me again about the Transit of Venus.’
‘You are being a pain Ephraim – I don’t know why – it’s not like you. You won’t have any trouble.’
‘It is like me – people always think that those who come out well don’t have to sweat to learn anything. They do, and I’ll tell you why. If I pass, my father will want me to stay on in the Navy and if I fail, he’ll never speak to me again.’
‘Well, you will pass and then you can stop forever saying you don’t like the Navy. Its like old Sharp is always saying – it’s a bloody privilege being an officer and a gentleman.’
‘Sebold! For heaven’s sake don’t start using foul language!’
‘Browne, for heaven’s sake, don’t start being a prig!’ Sebold slapped his book down on the table, ‘I’m going to the Heads, I’ll get a better atmosphere there.’
Came the start of the examination weeks.
‘Thank God, the drills and exercises are at a standstill!’
‘Seb, I do wish you would not use the Lord’s name in vain.’
‘And I wish you would stop being so irritable Browne. For someone that keeps going on about leaving the Navy, I don’t know why you care about the exams. Just go! …No, don’t go. Come and do some Seamanship with me, that’ll calm you down.’
The seamanship room was in great use for last minute practices and the studiea were surprisingly quiet as they filled with silent, anxious niners. Some had decided there was no hope and threw caution to the winds, deciding to enjoy the last few days at the expense of the younger cadets who felt the sting of more togeys than usual and heard more peremptory cries of ‘Fag! Fag!’ One or two regretted that it might be their last outing in a blue boat.
But eventually the agony was over; exams came and went and it was time for festivities. The Prince of Wales arrived accompanied by the First Lord, parades were held, speeches were made, prizes were given out and group photographs of sombre faces were taken by the photographer under his canopy. The list of final term exam results was posted. Their Lordships viewed them with concern, ‘A bunch of passings in the middle and a surprisingly heavy tail of those plucked.’ The new First Lord was ready to make changes at Admiralty, ‘We need a new Captain at the Training Ship, for a start,’ he said, ‘We must improve the training of Naval Officers.’
The results were not surprising among the Notables. As expected Sebold and Ephraim did well. They were content with the outcome, Ephraim came first in the list and Sebold second. ‘Quod erat demonstrandum,’ acknowledged Sebold as he took the Maths prize and Ephraim the Latin. They both gained the six months advance in their Midshipmen postings. Fraser, Bowen and Mason got decent upper placings, Polwhele did not do as badly as he feared. Wren was a surprise coming third and Stollman managed not to be last.
As they left to go down to their hammocks in the Briton on the final night, there was a last buzz of chatter.
‘Well, it wasn’t all that bad, was it, Browne? We got used to you.’ laughed Sebold.
‘Well, you got what you came for, Seb. First Step to First Lord?’
There were the sorrows of farewell, successes and regrets to acknowledge, promises given, but mostly, excitements of the future. They looked at each other. Who would get the best Med postings, how many of them would be Admirals in a big sea battle? Who might get killed in that battle, fall from the rigging in a storm, starve or drown in shipwreck on a foreign sea?
‘There will be no foreign seas now — they will all be ours!’ Gail’s eyes shone.
‘A navy to circle the globe!’ pronounced Fraser looking forward to his part in the great new British Empire.’
Polwhele was seeing himself a victorious Admiral on a victorious bridge leading a victorious fleet home but thought it unwise to say so.
‘Conquest,’ he said, ‘Conquest is the thing. Victory!’
Mason was considering whether he could be a Naval officer and a Missionary. Could he organise an Admiralty travelling task force?
‘We must all write to each other,’ Sebold commanded, as they unhooked their hammocks for the last time, ‘It won’t be so easy to see each other in our notably heroic future. We must know what happens to each of us. We must keep in touch. We will all become Admirals – even if we cannot all be Admirals of the Fleet.’
‘Whatever happens, as officers and gentlemen, we will make the Royal Navy proud of us,’ said Bowen, looking happily at his comrades. ‘Onwards and upwards, gentlemen!’
‘Hey!’ laughed Polwhele, ‘We’ve got to get through Midshipmen first!’