The King’s Head, Portsmouth,
March 23rd, 1803
This is it, then, my last night on dry land for six months at least. Only fitting I should begin my account here and now. It looks to be the first night of too many during which I shall be obliged to turn to this journal as the sole means of escaping boredom. I can only hope the pages will suffice for recording the entire time I am confined to the ship. Then again, why should they not? I do not expect to have much to write about. Charybdis is a frigate, a ship of war, yet there is peace with France (for now). Therefore, any significant change of the ship’s routine caused by martial action seems unlikely. With some luck we may encounter a privateer or get caught in a storm, or at least chance upon some noteworthy sea-creature. Either of these events would be welcome indeed to alleviate the tediousness I dread above all else.
I doubt we shall be that lucky, however. Also, I do not expect what little I put down here to be of interest to any potential reader. But for the sake of thoroughness – and my own sanity, not least – I will record faithfully everything I encounter
on my journey. I do not care who, apart from my ever nosey brother, might wish to read this. Even he will have to contain his curiosity for a year, for I will not return to England much sooner than that, if at all. The journey was his idea, of course. I still marvel how he managed to arrange my passage in such a short time. Presumably someone high up in the Admiralty owed him a favour, perhaps even Nelson himself. After all, Mycroft very skilfully ‘influenced’ public opinion once the Hamilton affair became known, much in Horatio's favour. Yes, M is good at that, the subtle pulling of strings.
No, I reckon the chronicling of my voyage to be for my own distraction foremost. I have some faint hope of encountering some vaguely interesting features once I reach my destination of India. Such accounts of the East India Company available in London detailing her flora, fauna, peoples and customs seem ridiculously incomplete. I look forward to studying her curiosities. Yes, this should be enjoyable, were it not for the journey itself, the impending boredom and inertia of which I dread. Being confined to a ship for half a year, surrounded by the same people, accommodated in cramped conditions, unable to study or experiment properly, or even have access to proficient literature to further my knowledge in those fields as hold my fascination – oh, I understand now the true purpose of this venture. It is punishment for my ‘misbehaviour’, simple as that, instead of an act of concern, of ‘safekeeping’, as my dear brother put it.
Already I got a taste of what lies in store for me in terms of boredom during the journey from London to Portsmouth. In accordance with my expectations, it turned out to be dreadfully uneventful and dull. So much so, that already at Kingston I began to hope for a highwayman to intercept us, or for Fetherington’s minions to catch up with the coach to provide some – any – distraction. Unfortunately, nothing of the kind befell. I should have ridden here on my own instead of relying on a snail-like carriage with its tedious assembly of fellow passengers. Or better still, I should have fled when I had the chance, instead of letting my brother trick me into accepting his ‘protection’. I should have played nasty, like him. But he had to bring mother into it, of course.
But yes, the coach … It took me a few seconds only to figure out my fellow passengers:
(fig. 1) Woman in her early twenties, housemaid, pregnant four or five months (difficult to say with her high-waisted dress), naval lieutenant’s mistress, anxious to inform her paramour of her predicament yet worried about his reaction while he languishes on half-pay without hope of a commission, thus unlikely to be able (and willing) to support her.
(fig. 2) Horse Guards clerk, about my age, musical (plays flute but not for long, still stuck on Frederick’s Études ), passion for Mozart, gambling (dice) and custard tarts.
(fig.3) Wigged naturalist, late forties, just returned from France via Dover (Provence or Alpes Maritimes) but originating from York (accent!), worried about his collection of beetles and butterflies (several specimen of bluebottles collected in the garrigue ) stacked amongst the luggage on the roof.
(fig.4) Elderly parson from Cornwall, recently widowed, visited late wife's relatives in London, predilection for pruning rose-bushes without gloves, owns bees and tends to hives without protective garments.
(fig. 5) My ‘manservant’ Mr. Turner, 34, silent and inconspicuous-seeming yet very able to use the considerable array of weapons concealed underneath his plain clothes, one of Mycroft’s men, officially assigned as my valet, unofficially as bodyguard, even more unofficially as jailor.
Anyway, an all too brief and easy distraction these fine specimen provided. For the rest of the journey I had to listen to their seemingly incessant prattle about their dull little problems. Only Turner did not take part in the conversation. Pity. Undoubtedly he would have had some interesting tales to tell. No new passengers joined us during the changing of horses at Guildford and Petersfield. The parson, the most interesting of the bunch because of his admittedly profound knowledge of apiculture and his fluent command of Cornish, alighted at the latter.
Sorely tempted to shut them up with a biting comment, I struggled to hold my tongue, knowing I would be stuck with them for hours inside the coach as heavy rain made joining the coachman outside rather unappealing. In fact, I behaved myself unusually well, pretending to read. I may even have slept for an hour or two, despite the heavy jolting and rattling of the coach and the deep snores of the naturalist.
So yes, I resent what my dear brother has inflicted upon me, this exile to India to ‘keep me out of trouble’. Out of trouble, hah! Have I not shown in the past, at Cambridge and elsewhere, that I can look after myself? I was able to hold my own against Wilkes and his cronies and their attempts at discrediting me at university. I managed fine even before, at school, without an older brother’s interference, struggling to step out of his ever present shadow. Even when assaulted by something more deadly than taunts I can muster a good defence, being capable enough with a blade as my fencing trophies from Harrow should prove. Nor am I an altogether terrible shot with a pistol. Lord Fetherington’s backside is ample proof for that. I did not miss, as has been implied. I hit him precisely where I wanted to. I could have killed him, but chose not to. Embarrassment – humiliation – is so much better. It serves him right. After all, he called me out, for my insolence as he claimed. I do not call it insolence, but a simple listing of facts. If he or anybody else feels uncomfortable hearing the truth about themselves, I do not consider this my problem but theirs.
Anyway, he will think twice now about challenging me to another duel, unless he wants to be shot in his other cheek. He seeks revenge, certainly (not understanding the true meaning of the term ‘duel’, it seems), and has sent out his people. But honestly, how can anyone truly consider them a threat? He is a pompous fool, and his underlings do not even reach his level of intelligence. Right now his dim-witted henchmen are milling about London like excited crows in their black coats and stockings – ah, the height of inconspicuousness they are, these fine fellows –, searching for me. And what a good job they are doing. They actually passed me by twice on my way to the coaching inn without even a spark of recognition. And I was not even wearing a hat. All in all, I see no need for shipping me off to India to keep me out of his reach, when even a journey of nine hours suffices to put his men off my tracks.
My brother’s man Collins managed to find me almost immediately, having the wits to actually inquire after my whereabouts when I refused to stay at the place previously arranged for me. Then again, people tend to underestimate him, mistaking him for a mere servant. Despite his seemingly frail frame he is far more dangerous than bulky Turner. Collins is skilled in the discreet but deadly use of a variety of weapons, speaks several languages, and has acting skills enabling him to seamlessly blend into his surroundings. No doubt Mycroft dispatched him to support Turner in ensuring I do not attempt to escape my doom. I could trick both, I guess, but since obviously there are yet more of Mycroft’s minions lurking in town, I assume I would not get very far before they caught me again. They, too, are annoyingly well trained and efficient.
Collins arrived at this inn shortly after I had retired to my room. I hate to admit it, but Mycroft did well in dispatching him. Collins showed up with some of the items I left behind when I was forced to pack in a hurry: my magnifying lenses, several drawing utensils, blank sheets of paper for either drawing or composing, and a number of books I should loathe to be parted from for long, particularly Lavoisier’s Traité Élémentaire de Chimie , the binding of which I should actually try and repair tonight as it threatens to fall apart. Already some of my notes and several pages have slipped out.
Of course, being his obnoxious self, my elder sibling also had the cheek to include some other literary works formerly not in my possession. In his note he states his desire to further my education. Education in what, I wonder, given the curious selection he sent. I understand he chose some of them to tease and annoy me. The appeal of literature along the lines of Fanny Hill completely escapes me. Is it supposed to be scandalous? I understand it was banned shortly after publication. Exciting? I found it boring at first glance. Most of the engravings are anatomically incorrect, anyway. And if taken as caricatures, they lack the biting satire of Hogarth’s or Gillray’s pieces. As far as the illustrations go, the same can be said of ‘Captain Johnson’s’ General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates . I read some passages, however, and it looks an interesting if somewhat fanciful lecture. There are several more books I have not looked into. I hope they will be worthwhile.
Collins also delivered my beloved violin and my folder of sheet music with the addition of some new and undeniably challenging pieces. I did consider bringing the instrument myself, but grew concerned about the effect constant moisture and the possible exposure to saltwater might have on it. Now I am glad about its company. It will help me to pass the time, the awfully long time I am to be locked in what looks like a tiny vessel.
While it was still light, I went to the harbour to catch a glimpse of my future prison. A midshipman overseeing the victualling of a sloop pointed out the frigate as she lay at anchor next to a three-decked first-rate. Compared to that formidable man-of-war, HMS Charybdis seemed a child’s toy. Nelson calls frigates the ‘eyes of the fleet’. To me, she seemed a nutshell, a small drone dwarfed by a queen in black and yellow checker. The thought of being confined to her dark innards and narrow decks for months on end fills me with dread.
Dear God, I am already repeating myself, am I not? What next? Will my vocabulary be reduced to a few words in a month’s time due to my brain rotting away? My ever-active mind threatens to tear itself to pieces when it lacks proper stimulation. And on that ship, with the same people, the same views day in and day out – where shall I find what I crave? Books and music can only distract me so far. I have a small hope the sick bay will be well stocked with certain substances to help me escape my mind from time to time, otherwise I do not know how to possibly survive the journey.
This is exactly why I consider this journey a punishment, an attempt to cure my waywardness, as no doubt my brother would claim. True, I do not conform to his notions of ‘proper conduct’. Actually, I am quite proud about that, and I love to rile him. With his stuck-up attitude he virtually asks for it, after all. But could he not have exiled me to the Continent, now that there is peace with France, to while away the time until Fetherington has calmed down and his backside has mended? Why India, of all places? Ah, perhaps because I would have enjoyed spending time in Europe? I still remember our Grand Tour fondly, particularly the adventurous crossing of the Alps and the wonders of Florence and Tuscany: the art, architecture, the music, the many different languages. I would like to return to these places, and also to visit Paris again. It fascinated me as a boy, and I should like to see how it has changed now after the Revolution.
But for now it is India, and I am to be an official messenger bearing important missives. Since when have I become ‘reliable’ enough in my brother’s eyes to be entrusted with political correspondence? I know this journey for what it is, and delivering messages to our military commanders afield is no part of it.
Tomorrow at high tide I will board Charybdis. There will be no need for Collins or Turner to exact force. I have resigned myself to my fate by now and shall try and make the most of the voyage, if only to spite Mycroft. I should write a letter to mother to explain the situation, though. No doubt M has already relayed his version of events, but I should like to add my own account of how this unfortunate business came to pass.
Ah, here come Collins and the landlord (former seaman of some rank – gunner, judging from the old powdermarks on his face and hands and his bad hearing –, originating from Suffolk but spent a while in the West Indies, recently re-married), the latter bearing supper (steak and ale pie, brown sauce, bread, butter, local cheese, some hopefully not too horrible claret). I am not hungry. It might be prudent to have this meal while there still is a proper one, though. Not long, and it will be salted meat and ship’s biscuit only, no doubt. Not that I care as long as they have decent tea on board.
But before supper I will check whether my violin suffered any damage during the journey. I wonder if anywhere in this town I could find strings, just in case there is indeed damage. And rosin to supplement my stock would not go amiss, either.
In the days to come, I hope to record on these pages not a pleasant, safe voyage, but an exciting one. ‘Pleasant’ in the common meaning of the word I equate with ‘boring’, and boredom will certainly kill me. But exciting – well, that at least might be tolerable.