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.
March 24th, 1803
It is four o’clock in the afternoon, according to the church bells I just heard tolling across the water. The ship’s bell has also called, which means that in the ship’s curious reckoning of time the afternoon watch is ended and the first dog watch begins. I can hear the crew’s footsteps overhead as they take up their stations.
I have been aboard Charybdis since noon – or the beginning of the afternoon watch, as I should term it correctly. I might be considered a ‘landlubber’ here (and a ‘damn inconvenience’, according to some sailor talk I overheard accidentally), but I might as well start to learn as much as I can about naval matters so as not to seem a complete imbecile. So far my welcome here has been rather curt and to the point. Not that I had wanted it any different. Nothing could have been worse than petty officers, knowing about my family’s standing and particular my brother’s position, grovelling for recognition in hope of ‘befriending’ me. I am not looking for friends on this voyage, but to be left in peace. I will not interfere with the ship’s running, and expect to be left to my own devices.
So far, I cannot complain in this respect. I was shown to my assigned quarters by the Second Lieutenant and been more or less told to stay there and out of the way until the Captain and First Officer arrive, both of whom are still occupied in the ship-yards as there seems to have been some trouble with the allotted amount of powder and storm canvas.
Still, despite my expectations, the hours spent aboard so far have been all but boring. I shall use the time to put down some of my impressions of ship and crew while I am waiting. Perhaps it will be useful to recapitulate my journey to the quays, too.
The night at the inn had passed without trouble, despite the crowd in the common room making rather a racket at some point, most likely when the landlord threw out a company of drunken sailors who had been cheating at dice. I must have fallen asleep shortly afterwards (dinner and the uncomfortable coach-journey are to blame – I keep insisting that digestion distracts from thinking), and woke rather late next morning. After a quick breakfast Collins and Turner arrived and we set out, the latter taking care of my luggage with the aid of one of the inn’s stable-hands.
By lucky coincidence we passed a bookseller on our way to the waterfront. Never able to resist the lure of these dangerous places, I ventured inside in the hope of picking up some publication about the flora and fauna of regions bordering on the Indian Ocean. There was nothing of the kind, however, apart from a small volume about the now extinct Dodo on Mauritius, which, however, seemed rather fanciful and not the scientific study I was looking for. What caught my interest, though, was a large volume being perused by two lads (local boys, obviously errand-runners for the book-seller, just returned from fetching papers at a printer, both from sea-faring families and eager to join the navy themselves). They were studying a large printed fold-out of a ship’s masts, sails and rigging and exchanging informed views about whether ‘royals’ were a necessity and when they should be used.
I listened to them for a while with minor fascination, realising that without the printed image and their eager pointing at certain parts (with unscrubbed, inky fingers) I would have had no inkling whatsoever they had been talking about. The limitations of my knowledge of all things nautical thus made clear to me, to acquaint myself with some basic terminology and its application suddenly seemed of highest priority. The bookseller, having noted my sudden epiphany (and the interest in the book), chased the boys away and began explaining about the tome. A short while after, I left the shop to add Falconer’s Universal Dictionary of the Marine to the luggage my faithful shadow Turner was carrying. Collins had gone ahead to the quays to arrange for a boat to transfer me to the frigate. So far I have only had a look at the illustrations and their descriptions, but already they have been of great help in determining where exactly in the bowels of the ship I am housed.
I have been assigned a berth in the aft section of the lower deck between the gun room and the first and second lieutenant’s accommodation. It borders on the wardroom, across which lie the cabins of the purser, the commanding officer of the marines, and the master. Apparently the surgeon, a Doctor Stamford, has yielded his cabin for my sake and moved into the gun room. I have not met him yet (nor any of my neighbours apart from Second Lieutenant Mr Watson and Mr Gregson the Master), but am inclined to be thankful to him. The berth is small indeed. My luggage barely fits into it together with me and the sparse furniture, the largest item of which is a hanging cot occupying most of the space. There is no natural light, and I am writing now to the sheen of a small lamp as I have repeatedly been warned of the danger of all kinds of open fire. I assume that after a while I will get used to the constant motion and the noises that reverberates through the ship, making it sound like a living, breathing creature, all thuds of waves and footsteps and creaking timber. I doubt I will get used to the smell, however. Stuffy is far too kind a term to describe it, a heady mixture of tarred wood, wet cloth, bilgewater and the stench of too many men living in too small a space. No doubt I will spend as much time as I can above decks.
So much for my present accommodation. I have been told that alternative arrangements might be possible. Lieutenant Watson mentioned that Captain Lestrade might be willing to yield his state room or even part of his own cabin which might provide me with more space. He must be owing Mycroft a larger favour than I was previously aware of. I am undecided whether to accept this, undoubtedly generous, offer. It has been implied that these alternative quarters are demolished every time it is beat to quarters, which should happen routinely once a day, but could befall any time an enemy is in sight. I think that for the time being, I shall remain here. It is small (I can barely stand upright) and rather cramped with all my books and other luggage, but strangely cosy.
I cannot report much more about the ship itself as I have only seen a small part of it. I have not met many of the crew, either, apart from the sailors who rowed me across and the midshipman commanding them, a sour-faced fellow named Anderson (Londoner, sulky, old for a midshipman, about 30, failed his examination for lieutenant more than once, occupied post of Acting Lieutenant as evidenced by the white midshipman’s insignia on his collar which have been removed and sewn on again repeatedly, educated enunciation, parents obviously interested in elevating him above their station).
On deck I was welcomed by before mentioned Second Lieutenant Watson. I hate to admit it, but I almost made a complete fool of myself while climbing up from the boat. Anderson had offered to rig the ‘boatswain’s chair’ for me, no doubt as a jab at my lack of seamanship, but proudly I of course refused this embarrassing procedure and insisted on clambering up the side. Just when I was stepping up on the boat’s gunwale, a strong swell caused it to rock and drift from the ship’s hull, causing me to slip and dangle in a most undignified manner until I managed to pull myself up. Nobody dared laugh, but the sailors’ faces spoke a very clear language. And my embarrassment did not stop there, alas.
Watson greeted me briefly and excused his captain and first officer who should have seen to welcoming me on board. He was courteous, but his demeanour clearly indicated he would rather see to other duties than look after a nuisance of a passenger. Therefore, without much ado, he beckoned me to follow him below decks to convey me to my quarters and out of the way of the working crew, who indeed seemed very busy finishing outfitting, cleaning and generally preparing the frigate for her journey.
Now, I have been on ships before, but none so large. The vessels crossing the Channel to the Continent are much smaller, and the last time I set foot on one I was a mere boy. The wind had picked up and the tide was changing, causing the ship to rock unsteadily at her anchor. I lost my footing more than once on the swaying deck and almost sailed down the first
staircase ladder after miscalculating its steepness. And while Watson, who is about a head smaller than I, fared no difficulties below decks, I hit my head somewhat painfully on the first low beam I encountered. Thankfully, he did not comment on my clumsiness, which must have confirmed his worse prejudice about a landsman’s poor conduct on a ship. But it riled me to no end, and I was thankful for the low illumination which hopefully hid the embarrassment that flushed my cheeks.
I believe what happened next was brought about my flustered state and the desire to prove that I was not a complete imbecile, both to myself and to this man who moved so naturally and effortlessly in this strange space, even despite a faint limp, and who, moreover, judging from the interactions with the crew I had witness prior to our descent, seemed both a capable, resourceful seaman and a well-liked, respected officer. In the short while it took him to welcome me and introduce himself and the midshipman standing by, he was approached three times by warrant officers with matters pertaining the ship and he dealt with all of them diligently and speedily.
After he had led me to my cabin and explained to me some of the ways of the ship, where to dine, who was accommodated where, and what alternative arrangements concerning my accommodation might be found once the captain arrived, he prepared to leave, excusing himself with having to look after the fastenings of some of the guns on the main deck which had been reported as faulty. All the time he had been speaking to me slowly, like one would to a child. I doubt he meant ill, but his opinion of my person as someone better suited to remain on land was obvious. I felt the acute need to re-establish some of my status and dignity.
Therefore I spoke up, asking: “Tenerife or Copenhagen?”
He halted and turned, looking at me curiously with a slight frown. “Pardon, sir?”
“I was wondering where you received your shoulder injury and developed the limp, Lieutenant Watson. The battle of Tenerife or Copenhagen?"
“Copenhagen,” he replied, warily. “How did you know? Who told you?”
Now I was in my element. “I did not know, I saw,” I told him, watching his eyebrows rise with both curiosity and suspicion. Before he could utter another question, I was already rattling off everything I had deduced about him:
“Your age I would put at early thirties, yet you are only a second lieutenant. Many men of your age already have their own command or have even been made post. Judging from what I witnessed earlier, the way you dealt with the demands of the crew, you are not a bad officer. In fact, as far as I can judge this, you seem both capable and well respected. So, what has prevented your promotion so far? Either lack of opportunity or of connections, obviously. Your accent and bearing, though befitting an officer, still indicate you are from a country background, middle class at best. Your sword, a naval blade but not of recent make, has been handed down to you. So, naval connections, but no high-ranking ones as this is not an admiral’s sword. One of your ancestors, most likely your father, was an officer, too. Either he is retired now or dead, and you inherited the weapon. Then there is your uniform, of course.”
He gazed down his chest as if noticing his garments for the first time, then back to me. “What about my uniform?” he inquired defensively, shifting his stance and lifting his chin, his eyes narrowing.
“It rather shows your lack of profitable connections, too, and indeed a lack of funds. Undress coat (so as not to spoil your dress uniform during the outfitting of the ship where even as an officer you might need to lend a hand), quality wool but nothing fancy, at least four years old as indicated by the somewhat old-fashioned pattern, but well, almost fastidiously maintained. Obviously you take care of your belongings because you cannot afford to replace them. It is doubtful you have a steward for looking after the coat, either, so its recent upkeep has likely been a woman’s task, unless you did the darning and brushing yourself. Not a wife as there is no indication of you being married, so a female family member, most likely either your mother or sister. The rest of your uniform is well tended, too, even your shoes, recently blackened and not many scuff-marks yet from climbing around the ship. This indicates a prolonged stay on land, as is further suggested by the lack of tan on your face and hands. It is only March, certainly, but many of the sailors I just saw on deck were strongly tanned, and not just from time spent in more southerly climes but from having to weather the elements all winter.
“So, what caused you to remain on land? There are several indices that tell a tale as concisely as you could in words. For one there is of course the current political situation with France. A peace treaty, as shaky as it may be, means less need for ships of war and fewer commissions awarded, accordingly. Many officers are stuck on land on half-pay, desperate to take on whatever commission becomes available. Given your obvious skills at seaman- and leadership, combined with the experience of more than a decade at sea, doubtless you were hoping for your own command, but due to a current lack of these stations and your personal lack of connections which could secure you one, you took on the best commission that was presented to you. The crew and warrant officers treated you with a certain familiarity, therefore it is highly likely you have sailed with them before, under Captain Lestrade’s command. Perhaps he even put in a word for you. And after all, an officer’s post on a frigate with even the faintest hope of prize-money is still better than remain on land or serve on a merchant ship.
“But there are other, more personal indices as well. Your shoulder. You were wounded in action, and took a long time recovering. You wear your sword on your left side so as to draw and wield it with your right, but you are originally left-handed. Obviously you sustained an injury to your arm or shoulder. There is a small, well sewn in patch of slightly darker cloth where apparently a bullet hit you right under your clavicle. Moreover your coat is of a somewhat lighter blue on your left side as if it has been scrubbed or bleached to get rid of blood stains. What was it, a sniper’s bullet? Must have been a nasty wound which could not be treated sufficiently when you received it. You were busy. With what? Fighting, obviously. You were wounded during a sea-battle, and you kept struggling until its end. Perhaps you were forced to assume command of a vessel because your superiors were killed or incapacitated. The wound got infected, and you were sent back to your family to recuperate. Since you could not move your arm for an extended period of time, you relearned some things with your right, such as fencing. Unfortunately for you, once you were fit for duty again, the Peace of Amiens had been signed and there was no way for you to return to sea immediately, despite your need of money. Half-pay does not sustain a family very well, and I would assume that your father is indeed dead, making your income and whatever pension your mother may receive as an officer’s widow the only funds available to you.
“Ah, but there is more to your injury, and this is what prompted my initial question: Tenerife or Copenhagen. You were wounded during a major struggle, one that was lost, not just indicated by the lack of care your wound received on the spot, but also proven by your leg.”
These were the first words the Lieutenant managed to get in edgewise after his initial interruption – well, I tend to talk extremely fast when I am at it. I found his expression difficult to read. Most people who had been on the receiving end of one of my elaborations had by that time either made their anger and offence known or simply left. John Watson seemed torn between the latter and the wish to hear my speech to the end. I carried on. Admittedly, I would have regardless of his reaction. It is just so difficult to stop once I am that inspired.
“Indeed, your leg. When you led me to my quarters, you walked with a slight limp. Very minor, barely visible. But up on deck when you were accosted by half a dozen men at the same time and had to make decisions quickly, you stood firmly on both legs, not favouring your right which bears the limp. Now, with a real injury this would not have been the case, would it? But no, when you were busy, when you were distracted, you did not heed your disability, as if you had forgotten about it. Now, it is known that men having experienced a major fear-inducing event can develop such conditions. You do not strike me as a fearful person, which means the events that caused the tremor were extraordinarily cruel, horrifying. A battle that was lost, then? A desperate stand against an overpowering foe, one that had you witness the needless deaths of men under your command? Not many of those recently, were there, not with Nelson storming ahead and wiping the French from the waters wherever he goes. The only major campaigns lost recently were at Tenerife and Copenhagen. Considering the timing, I also favoured the latter event.”
I stopped to draw breath, studying him excitedly. He was watching me with a strange expression, as if measuring me up. Quickly recapturing what I had just told him, or flung at him, rather, I realised that, as so often before, I might have overstepped the mark a little. Some of the things I had pointed out to him he might not be eager to hear from a stranger’s mouth, especially what I had said about his financial situation and his injuries. Deflating a bit and retreating a tentative step, I braced myself for the inevitable reaction.
He shook his head slightly. “That,” he said, “was amazing.”
What? Well, of course it was, but usually I am alone with this opinion. Had I surprised him before with my skill at observation, I have to admit now our positions were exchanged. I was taken aback by his lack of offence.
“You think so?” I therefore inquired, in case I had not heard right.
“Extraordinary,” he went on, still giving me this strange, calculating glance. But was there also a faint smile? “Quite extraordinary.”
I had to express some of my astonishment. “This is not what people normally say.”
He cocked his head. “What do people normally say?”
“They either tell me to remove myself from their sight the speediest way possible, or they demand satisfaction straight away.”
For a second or so he stared at me incongruously, and then he did the most extraordinary thing: he laughed. And strangely, I did not feel ridiculed, as I have so often back at university, when my dear fellow students enjoyed mocking me for me abilities. Rather, I felt him to be on my side, and my skills appreciated for a change. A most unusual feeling, indeed.
“Well, Mr Holmes, I must inform you that duels are against the law in the navy, so you better don’t get involved in another one,” he told me, still smiling.
I think I even smiled in return. “I shall attempt to behave, Mr Watson.”
His expression took on a more sober hue. “A word of advice, sir. Have a care around some of the other officers. You are going to meet them at dinner tonight. It’s doubtful everybody is going to take having a mirror placed before them in such good humour.”
“If I have offended you in any way, Lieutenant Watson, I apologise,” I stated. Again a novum. Not something I normally do.
He shook his head. “If you had, I might have called you out indeed,” he said with a faint grin and spark in his eyes. “Just to prove I hadn’t practised right-handed fencing for nothing all winter. I doubt you know any real, gritty fighting, only some fancy swordplay at whatever pretentious place you grew up at.”
“Effective fancy swordplay,” I returned. I might have sniffed. Was he trying to pay me back a little? Well, perhaps I deserved it.
He grinned again. “Is that so? I should like to see it some day.” As if suddenly remembering his station, and mine, his mirth vanished, to be replaced by a more businesslike expression. “Right, as I was saying, the Captain told me to inform you that it would be his pleasure to join him and the other officers for dinner in his cabin after the first dog watch.”
“Please convey my thanks. I shall be pleased to attend.”
He nodded. “Aye, sir. I have to return to my duties now, so please excuse me. If you lack anything, I fear you must make yourself heard since you have no steward accompanying you. Hudson, the captain’s steward, will look after your needs.”
He nodded again and turned to go.
“Did I get anything wrong?” I could not help asking.
He cast me a glance over his shoulder. “You were spot on with most of what you said, and I’m still in awe how you did it. Doubtless, there will be time to explain your deductions to me more fully, if you don’t mind. I’d like to learn more about them.” He turned once more to look at me fully.
“There is one thing, though: the sword was my uncle’s, not my father’s.”
There is always something, damn it!
“He was a lieutenant aboard the Bristol and was killed during the Battle of Sullivan’s Island in ’76. I barely remember him. I was only a lad when he passed. My father was a naval surgeon and died of the yellow fever in the West Indies when I was 17. Originally I had intended to follow in his profession, but then there was the Revolution in France and the consequent war, and the need for me to, well, you said it, to provide for my family, and thus I became a midshipman because an officer’s career seemed more profitable. Not that it has been, as yet.”
He shrugged. “Let’s hope Boney’s had enough of this peace soon, and we can go back to what we do best: harrying the Frogs.”
With that he left me to my own devices. After some unpacking, I began to write down this account. I can hardly believe how many pages I have filled, just describing this one encounter. Intriguing, to say the least. Even though he looks so ordinary and easy to read, Lieutenant Watson seems to be a most interesting character. I can only hope the other officers will provide as fascinating material for my studies as he
Ah, and here is the bell announcing the last dog watch. Doubtless I shall be fetched to attend dinner soon. I am hungry, too. Perhaps it is true what they say about sea-air and its hunger-inducing properties. I will make myself presentable now. Hopefully, this will not be as dull an event as those dinners I am used to at home, and will provide me with material to fill some more pages.
My sincere apologies for the long delay. RL and another fic (well, series, actually) sucked up my research and writing time for this one. Still, I hope to be able to update more frequently in the future. There is going to be art soon, too, which I will include directly into the fic and also post at my tumblr. Thanks for bearing with me.
HMS Charybdis, Portsmouth Harbour,
March 25th, 1803
The bells in the harbour have just announced the passing of midnight. I do not know what the watch is called in the ship’s reckoning, but I intend to procure a list of the watches as soon as it is light in order to learn the correct terms.
I returned from dinner and its aftermath about an hour ago. I have not been bored the entire evening, which surely qualifies as an achievement on the behalf of whoever put together the selection of individuals as were assembled in the Captain’s cabin tonight. I daresay I shall not be bored for as long as I have not deciphered all their secrets yet. I felt like studying rare beetles or unusual plants under a magnifying lens. Truly, even though very often I find the company of flora or chemical compounds and their properties preferable to that of humankind, observing and deducing people can be a fascinating pastime. The study of this particular collection of specimens will occupy me throughout our journey, no doubt.
Following, I shall begin a brief description of every officer and warrant officer present at dinner. None of the entries will of course be final and comprehensive as yet. Doubtless there will be additions and alterations to and reconsiderations of my initial impressions over time. Should my excitement and sleeplessness continue throughout the night, I might also attempt a quick drawing of each individual’s features to accompany my account. I have not drawn from memory for a while, but it will be a good practice for my future artistic endeavours.
Now, let me introduce the players. I use this analogy deliberately, for what else is this menagerie of human specimens than actors in a stage-play? They are even performing on wooden planks. But whether this is going to develop into a drama or a comedy remains to be seen. For tonight, I would term it a rather well behaved Restoration Comedy with its attempts at wit and repartee, encouraged as the evening progressed by the increased consumption of wine and port.
Here be the protagonists then, their descriptions based on my personal observations as well as information gained or inferred through conversation, and by overhearing talk about people not present while walking the decks after the meal.
Foremost, some information about the ship might be of interest. I am not a nautical expert, far from that (although I shall endeavour to learn as much as I can about these matters during the journey), hence the information gathered here I took on good authority from Captain Lestrade himself. It runs thus:
HMS Charybdis :
Frigate (Fifth Class), thirty-six guns; twenty-four thirty-two pounders on main (upper) deck, twelve eightteen pounders on quarterdeck, four eightteen pounders on forecastle; crew consists of two hundred souls (not counting the goat, chickens, rats and the surgeon’s cat – theologians may discuss whether they have souls or not); was built at Brest in 1797, formerly French frigate Hélene, captured in the Channel in 1801 and subsequently renamed after the dreaded sea monster of Greek mythology.
When I joined Captain Lestrade on the quarterdeck after dinner, he also told me a great deal about the rigging and different kinds of canvas they have been loading today, but I shall omit this information for the present as there are arguably more interesting features to report.
Now, here be the Officers:
Captain Gregory Lestrade
Tall, prematurely grey-haired (runs in the family?), in his mid-forties (born in 1758 I would wager though I cannot be certain), hails from London (Southwark), family of seafaring folk, father and grandfather masters in the Merchant Navy, he is the first to actually pursue a nautical career in the King’s Navy; was made post after the Battle of the Nile (1798) where he was stationed on HMS Audacious as 1st Lieutenant; married, five children (two sons and three daughters); Charybdis is his first command of a frigate after commanding smaller vessels (sloops); reputation as a stern but fair captain, keeping a “happy ship”, somewhat unlucky in terms of prize money because he was overlooked on two occasions (hence the late promotion to Post Captain), advanced to officer status from seaman to master’s mate to sailing master (good sailor); has been commanding HMS Charybdis since she was converted from the captured French frigate Hélene two years ago.
The Captain, though well-read in the Classics and adept at languages (speaks passable French and even some Spanish) would by many of my peers hardly be considered a gentleman because of his modest background. It is something, however, he does not try to hide which in turn makes him seem genuine and sympathetic. I cannot abide people who project themselves above their station – and I am not referring to whatever status they might have inherited at birth, but to personal merit and achievements. In this category, despite his recent bad fortune in terms of prize money and general acclaim, Lestrade appears to be a well-respected, generous and straightforward man. He greeted me politely without any false deference, welcoming me upon his vessel. He did enquire whether my accommodation was acceptable, but also indicated – a fact which rather endeared him to me because he stuck to the truth – that alternative arrangements might not be manageable due to the scarcity of space on the ship. He appears to be somewhat old-fashioned in his views and indeed his outfit, judging from the cut of his uniform and the way he wears his hat (still athwart, unlike his lieutenants with their more fashionable fore-and-aft bicornes). In short, he comes across as plain, unassuming and yet efficient, all traits I appreciate. I have had my fair share of fops at school and university and in the dealings with my obnoxious family and their so-called friends.
1st Lieutenant James Moriarty
Late twenties, appears to be born in the same year as I, 1776; accent nondescript but refined yet with a hint of something I have not had enough opportunity yet to decipher (West-country, Ireland, even the Americas, perhaps?); family seems to be of some money and influence, the former shown by the state, quality and cut of his uniform and the fashionable style of his hair, the latter by what can be gleaned from his educational background and the speed of his naval career: educated at a public school (not Harrow as he would have been in my year, presumably Eton, judging from the faintest of sneers when I divulged where I had been schooled), then naval academy, advanced to Lt. through connections, did not serve long as midshipman and did not pass through the ranks; it remains to be seen whether he is a good sailor, certainly authoritative as indicated by the respect the midshipmen and other members of the crew show him, and ambitious as evidenced by his bearing and demeanour; passed his examination for Lt. together with John Watson but appears to maintain little contact with him beyond the professional, avidly avoided conversing with him at dinner despite them being seated next to each other. They are certainly not on friendly terms, perhaps due to entirely different backgrounds. Witty, intelligent, widely read on the Classics, speaks fluent Greek and Latin, French and passable Italian (and likes showing off his language skills). Avid chess player. I look forward to a game or two, despite not having played for a long time. All in all, an interesting character. From what I have gathered so far, the most developed intellect on this ship, at least in terms of education and wit.
2nd Lieutenant John Hamish Watson
Born in 1771, hails from London (Blackheath), but with some Scottish ancestry; his father was a father naval surgeon who died in the West Indies; John originally trained as a surgeon as well but then switched to an officer’s career in the hopes of more pay (prize money) when his father died and he had to provide for his mother and sister; served as 4th Lt. on HMS Audacious at Aboukir, and as 2nd on HMS Monarch at Copenhagen (1801), got severely wounded during that battle (sniper-shot through left shoulder) and heavily traumatised (still manifest in the slight limp which occurs at times) because of extreme death toll Monarch suffered due to her raking by Holsteen and Sjælland. Despite acts of bravery (Watson took command after 1st officer and captain were killed and saved a considerable amount of crew) and selflessness he was repeatedly overlooked at promotion, first because of his healing injury that kept him away from the naval circus, and later because of the declaration of the Peace of Amiens which cut short the demand for commanders. Subsequently, he has been languishing on land with half-pay. He received an offer for a position of 1st officer on an East Indiaman but declined due to the small chance of prize money. I cannot be certain, but there are signs that he needs means not only to support his family but also to get married. He met Lestrade accidentally in London who offered him position aboard Charybdis.
As for his character and skills, I have described some of them already: he seems courageous, is an excellent shot with a pistol (one of the best in the “entire bleeding Navy”, according to Lt. Moran), is handy with a sword (both hands), resourceful, a good sailor and navigator (seems to know his maths), somewhat daring at times, he is well-liked and respected by the crew and seems to maintain a professional but friendly relationship with his captain; his stand appears to be somewhat more difficult with some of his fellow officers as he is not deemed a ‘proper’ gentleman. Personally, as with Captain Lestrade, I would rather have someone play down their upbringing than up. I am still somewhat surprised by his reaction to my deduction about his person. Never before have I encountered not only a lack of animosity, but also genuine interest, even admiration. No mere fawning and boot-licking, but a heartfelt expression of appreciation without any ulterior motive. It touched me, I admit it freely. I hope I shall remain on good terms with Lt. Watson.
Midshipman Anderson (senior Midshipman)
Nearly thirty, failed examination for Lt. twice after occupying the post of Acting Lieutenant; passable seaman who seems to like doing things by the book instead of relying on his experience, somewhat insecure when forced to decide quickly (the question of whether to take wine or stick to port during dinner put him into quite a quandary), sometimes gets teased by the crew (behind his back) or Midshipman Monterey for his past failures; sulky, does not seem to hold “gentlemen” in high regard since apparently he feels wronged and overlooked in terms of promotion, does not seem to like me as he associates me with this class.
Midshipman Dimmock (only briefly present at dinner, left to see to his duties as officer of the watch, relieving Anderson)
Early twenties, mousy, easily shaken by criticsim but polite and unassuming. Currently studies for first examination for Lt., eager, studious (there were teasing remarks about him carrying his naval books with him all the time and even sleeping with them). May prove good source for specialist information about the ship and her sails and rigging, as well as navigational matters as he appears to be a good mathematician. Hails from Plymouth, seafaring family of moderate means, has three elder brothers, two in the Navy and one captaining a ship of the East India Company. Has a girl in Portsmouth who according to him is the love of his life and according to his fellow officers the love of the life of many. Ate like he had not seen food for a week which apparently is customary with him, although he does not look it, small and slight as he is.
About fifteen (is it really wise to take children as young as him aboard a ship of war? I am not convinced it is. There seem to be even younger boys amongst the crew, called something like ‘monkeys’, if I caught the term correctly. Still, nosey and observant as young children are, I am sure they might be useful in providing me with insights and information about all matters of shiplife).
Anyway, Monterey appears to be on the opposite scale of usefulness in that regard: viscount of something or other – I deleted the information immediately after he made haste to inform me; deems himself above his station, arrogant, toadied up somewhat spectacularly to the First Lt. although Moriarty brushed him off. Tried the same with me after the Captain let slip that my brother occupies a minor (hah!) position in the government. Fervour cooled a little after learning first about my ties to Harrow (he is a devout Etonian – figures, I guess) and subsequently my fall from grace (is Monterey’s family friendly with Fetherington?). Very eager for advancement, will make Lt., Post, Commodore and Admiral in no time, no doubt. Naval capabilities remain to be seen. Appears to be fond of gambling because he asked me whether I play cards, to the frowns of his superior officers. Moron, but might prove useful because single-minded and gullible.
Midshipman Gabriel Lestrade
Youngest Midshipman aboard Charybdis, this is his first commission, aged thirteen or fourteen; Lestrade’s eldest son (interesting that he should serve on his father’s ship; whether this has potential for tension and discontentment amongst the other Midshipmen and officers because of preferred treatment remains to be seen), very eager but somewhat excitable and clumsy (he moves almost as shakily about the ship as I, although I am working hard on improving my sealegs). Has taken a liking to Lt. Watson and follows him like a shadow, obviously impressed by the fact he was wounded in action and has shown some martial distinction and personal bravery. Looks like a scarecrow in his too large uniform that was obviously tailored for him to grow into. Somewhat difficult stand with Anderson and Monterey who treat him curtly and not always fairly when out of the Captain’s earshot.
Lieutenant Sebastian Moran (Royal Marines)
About my age, slightly older. Military family, of Irish origin and unabashedly proud of it which does not seem to sit well with everybody (mutterings about “Papist tendencies” from Anderson), father and brother active in Irish rebellion (he talks about it freely which to me seems unwise although it is tolerated by the Captain and to some extend by the two naval Lieutenants), brutally honest (makes him sympathetic, particularly in comparison to simpering, toadying Monterey). Lower middle class at best, promoted from the ranks, has served in the West Indies as well as India, gained promotion through act of valour while defending naval officers during a mutiny onboard a vessel). Excellent shot with both pistol and musket although according to him rifles outweigh muskets by far with their greater accuracy, appears to have few interests beyond guns and hunting, seems to hold Lt. Watson in high regard because “that man at least has seen some hard action and knows which way to point a gun”. Questioned me thoroughly about my dueling experiences after Monterey let slip that my recent outing with Fetherington (I am convinced they must be related) is the cause for my presence aboard this ship. Seemed disappointed when I told him that I did not kill my opponent but shot his backside instead (a source of consternation for Moran since apparently “that’s no proper way to conduct and end a duel” but also of much hilarity for the other officers).
The Warrant Officers:
Master Tobias Gregson
About fifty but fit and burly, has served with Lestrade for a considerable amount of time and they appear to be friends, has been all over the world and served with both the Navy and the East India Company, the latter of which he dislikes for “sloppy and inefficient seamanship”. Married, several children (all daughters, one son died in infancy which appears to be a cause of grief still even though it befell years ago. Seriously, why would he still be upset, considering he has so many other children left – whom he never sees, anyway, being away at sea? Must be ‘sentiment’, I reckon. Never really understood that one).
Hails from some village in the South Downs and has spent three quarters of his life at sea (which according to him “makes for a perfect marriage because my Anne is much better at seeing to all things pertaining to house and business than I, and with me away, we get along splendidly”). Claims to get sick if he has to spend longer than a week on steady ground. Rich source of gossip, seems to have served with everybody of note in the Navy and always ready to divulge a tale (to the chagrin of some of the other officers who seem to have heard a great deal of them before); served with Nelson in the East Indies and could not be prevented to give a detailed account of their stationing at Antigua, resplendent with a thorough description of the disease and squalour of their confinement at ‘Nelson’s Dockyard’ which caused Midshipmen Monterey and Lestrade to refuse to partake of the pudding in favour of stepping outside for a breath of fresh air.
Hearing the truly harrowing account makes me wonder why so many men take this hardship upon themselves. No prize money or ill-guided desire for “adventure” or to “see the world” could, in my opinion, counter the squalour of the living conditions below decks, nor the strict hierarchy, the constant danger of death or mutilation through disease, accident or martial action. These naval men seem to be made of sterner stuff than the common landlubber, and I begin to wonder how I am going to fare in the months to come, accustomed as I am to a comfortable and, admittedly, rather coddled and sheltered life.
That said, if anybody can advise me in matter of sensible conduct upon a ship, it undoubtedly is Master Gregson with his wealth of experience and his curt but likeable attitude that brooks no nonsense. Uses very colourful language at times (to the profound fascination of the younger Midshipmen).
Surgeon Doctor Michael Stamford
Another likeable character, not least for surrendering his cabin to me. Middle-aged, accent denoting a northern place of origin, possibly east coast somewhere between Kingston and Newcastle. Studied medicine at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. Joined the Navy because of above mentioned lust for adventure (according to himself) which has long since been dimmed by routine and boredom. Most likely reason for joining the Navy were debts at home. Middle class, medical profession runs in family, elder brother took over father’s practice in their village. Married, at least two children. Good friends with Gregson, have served on several ships together. Easy-going, friendly, bit of a push-over, though. Cheerful. Interested in collecting all kinds of sea-creatures and dissecting them, hopes to eventually have a species named after him, preferably some kind of giant tortoise such as he has seen on the Galappagos Islands (“most horrid and God-forsaken lump of rock I’ve ever sat foot on,” according to Gregson, “with dragon-like swimming lizards ugly as Boney’s arse. Good eating on those tortoises though. Taste like chicken.”).
I should really like to see those islands, unfortunately they are on the far side of the earth and not even close to our route. Must ask Stamford for use of his scientific equipment and his notes on and preserved specimens of the strange diving lizard creatures alluded to by Gregson. Also, if anybody on this ship can supply me with chemicals and instruments for conducting experiments, it is this man. Must remember to remain civil and friendly.
Also of middle age, hails from Fitton (never heard of it before, must lie somewhere south of London), seems to be wife-less at the moment but is more than once divorced, shrewd and cunning, good at making deals (can provide anything anywhere, according to Gregson), has long sailed with Merchant Navy, seems to be aboard Charybdis because Lestrade put in a good word for him after he fell out with his former employer, has makings of a petty criminal which seems to profit him in his profession. Like Gregson bottomless source of gossip. I was warned not to engage in any kind of wager or bet with him as “Fortuna lives in his pocket” according to Stamford. It is said he is impossible to beat at whatever kind of game one could possibly devise. Well, when have I ever eschewed a challenge?
Not present at dinner but having come to my attention before or after it were the following individuals:
Bosun (Boatswain) Sal Donovan
Hails from the West Indies (Antigua), parents former slaves on sugar plantation, about thirty, wiry and lean and of moderate height yet commands great respect from crew, clearly most authoritative figure amongst the seamen and even the warrant officers, seems to have served with Lestrade for a long time, as well as Gregson who holds him in high regard. Difficult to read, though, as he does not appear to talk much but keeps to himself when he is off duty.
Large, burly, from Northern Wales (Gwynedd), strong accent, pious, widower but with a number of children looked after by members of his late wife’s family, in his mid-forties, no seafaring background.
Middle-aged, small and slight of build with a narrow face and shifty expression, very quick and diligent in his duties, hails from London (Westminster/Marylebone), criminal background, apparently took on position as steward to escape punishment for minor thefts (has all the makings of a conman, too), Lestrade seems to be aware of his misdemeanour but overlooks it because of this individual’s prime stewarding skills. Seems trustworthy enough, though. Makes good coffee.
Former seaman, injured in same battle as John Watson, lost an ear and several fingers on his right hand, stiff leg but to my shame I have to admit he moves with greater agility and dexterity below decks than I. Around forty, from Southhampton, seems to be known (and cherished) by the crew for his dirty jokes and his good singing voice, and not least his cooking. The meal he produced for dinner was rather good, I must say, although I have been warned that the longer the journey lasts, the more the fare is going to be reduced to salt pork and ship’s biscuit and the occasional lump of cheese.
Scottish and proud of it, half deaf, scarred skin from shrapnel when a cannon more or less exploded in his face. Does not deal well with authority, even the officers’ (particularly Anderson and Monterey) but seems to get along with Watson, Moriarty and especially Moran as they share a passion for everything that needs gunpowder to project missiles. Likes to tell gruesome tales of sea-battles to the younger sailors and Midshipman Lestrade and show his numerous scars to scare them. Seems to be very knowledgeable of the rather un-medical but effective treatment of wounds, too, much to the irritation of Dr. Stamford.
Marine Sergeant Thorpe
Mid-thirties, from Yorkshire (Leeds?). His parents are weavers who are seeing their livelihood endangered by mills and “fucking imported cotton”. Hinted at them being involved with the ‘machine breakers’. Has many siblings, sends money home regularly, devout Anglican, somewhat at odds therefore with his superior officer Moran and his “bleeding Papism”, hopes to return to Leeds to marry his childhood sweetheart when he has earned enough money to keep her, has been injured severely during a storm and is still relearning the use of his left arm.
So, this be my account of officers and crew for the time being. As mentioned above, without doubt their portraits shall be painted in greater detail when I have come to know them longer. As for the actual painting – or drawing, rather –, I shall see to that after jotting down a brief account of the proceedings of the evening.
The meal took place in the Captain’s cabin which to my surprise is fairly large and airy with a row of windows along the rear and white-painted beams in the ceiling to create the illusion of space. A large table of massive oak commands the centre of the room, and there are cushioned benches along the window-front, as well as a wooden cabinet containing the Captain’s maps and navigational instruments and some of his more precious cutlery, china and drinking vessels. Wooden bulkheads partition off part of the room, most likely to create a sleeping space for the captain. Disturbing the setting, however, are the two cannons, one to either side of the room. Even during meals they remind the diners of the true purpose of the ship. During a battle or a call to arms for practice the entire cabin is modified, the bulkheads taken out and everything is cleared for action. Must be highly inconvenient to have your private quarters taken apart on a regular basis. But then there is nothing like privacy on a vessel like this beyond the small alotted space one has been granted. I think I shall keep the tiny, cramped thing I have been stuffed into instead of exchanging it for something airier so as not to find myself roused and evicted each time it is beat to quarters.
I was one of the last persons to arrive at dinner, lead thither by Midshipman Lestrade, all bouncy and agitated (him, not me). He is as new to the ship as I, after all. Present at dinner were the Captain, the First and Second Lieutenant, the master, purser and surgeon and Lieutenant Moran, as well as Midshipmen Anderson (arriving after Dimmock had relieved him), Monterey and Lestrade. Dimmock only stayed long enough to be introduced to my person and to wolf down the first course of the meal in what must be record time before returning on deck as officer of the watch. All officers were resplendent in their dress uniforms, with Lestrade and the two naval Lieutenants wearing medals. I wonder where Moriarty gained his distinction and what for.
After a (thankfully) brief and perfunctory round of introductions I was seated with the warrant officers to Lestrade’s left – or larboard side, as I should term it nautically. Across the table sat Lt. Moriarty, next to him Lt. Watson, while to my right I had Dr. Stamford who proved an interesting if somewhat talkative companion.
I had expected having to explain my presence and indeed purpose on the ship, but apparently Lestrade had had some word with his officers. Questions about my destination and the reasons for taking up the journey were few and did not require indepth explanation. There was also only a minimum – and therefore tolerable – amount of toadying, mostly conducted by Monterey who upon learning of my brother’s influential position thought it fit to blabber to me about the grand standing of his family and his future career plans in the King’s Navy and in politics after he had been made admiral. As if any of that was of even the faintest interest to me. Even if I had the power, I would do my utmost not to promote someone like him into any position of influence. He reminds me too much of the pampered fools I went to school with. Judging from the rolling of eyes up and down the table when Monterey engaged in yet another rant about his familial grandeur, I am not the only one of his opinion. Anderson looked ready to leave at several occasions, and Gregson and Richardson indulged in gently poking fun at the lad without him noticing, which was interesting to watch and contributed much to the entertainment of the evening and my personal enjoyment of it.
And enjoy it I did, much to my surprise. Usually I try to avoid formal outings in society like the plague. But here I found most of the company tolerable if not outright fascinating. For the most part, unless addressed directly, I was content to sit and listen and watch. The mood was relaxed and friendly, which seems partly due to the Captain’s calm personality. He trusts his officers and they him. I begin to understand what is meant by running a “happy ship”, although this accumulation of individuals will have to stand the test of time and the hardships a long sea-voyage brings. But despite minor squabbles amongst the Midshipmen, encouraged good-naturedly by the faint nettling of the warrant officers who seemed to be enjoying themselves the most of all present, the conduct amongst the officers appears to be one of professional amicability. It must be so, I guess, setting personal differences aside constanly in order to maintain the fragile balance of powers upon a ship of war. The Captain is like the supreme ruler of this small wooden world and all disobedience is dealt with quickly and ruthlessly, for if not, all order will fall apart and the system dissolve into chaos. Tomorrow there is going to be a reading from the Articles of War which I am very curious about. It will no doubt be interesting to learn of the rules and regulations that govern every living creature upon this vessel, not least myself. I wonder whether I shall feel inclined to subject to them.
What else struck me during the meal – which in itself was not remarkable in culinary achievement yet surprisingly rich and varied (I was told that Lestrade despite his not considerable funds was a generous host) – was the amount of alcoholic beverages served and consumed. I would have assumed that those officers yet about to go on watch during the night to fare easy with the port and wine, yet everybody was holding their drink remarkably well, even frowning at me when I refused a second glass of claret. Later I learned that the crew mostly subsist on ‘grog’, a mixture of rum and water. Officially that is to make the water safer to drink but I assume it also has to do with keeping the men docile and happy so as neither to question the hard labour upon the ship nor the strict discipline and the lack of privacy. Gregson and Richardson jointly recounted a tale where a ship ran out of grog and the crew almost embraced mutiny for the lack.
Maybe in a few months at sea I, too, will partake more strongly of the wine to cope with my boredom, although for the moment I prefer to not dull my wit and senses. I will not give a detailed account of conversations that occured up and down the table, nor will I now describe my fellow diners in greater detail than I have done above. Already I have written far more than I intended, and I should like to sketch some of the individuals before I retire.
What is my final verdict of the evening, then? Difficult to say. After the meal, I was invited to join the Captain and the senior officers on the quarterdeck, which I understand is some honour for a mere passenger since usually that part of the ship is reserved for the officers and those of the crew who have business there.
The wind had died down when we excited the stuffy cabin to ascend to the quarterdeck. Hudson the steward brought us coffee. There even was milk, donated by the ship’s goat. I was told to appreciate it as long as it lasted, although Lt. Watson informed me that the Captain usually is well stocked with coffee, and that the goat was looked after so as hopefully to last the journey. So, coffee. Tea, too. To be honest, I had not expected any such luxury (I had not expected pudding, either, but there was plenty, and fresh fruit, too, one of the first commodities to disappear, though).
Since the ship still lies at anchor, only a small contingent of crew was milling about, watched over by Midshipman Dimmock who was pacing along the railing softly whistling to himself. Across the water, lights could be seen reflected on the smooth surface, both from the taverns and inns at Portsmouth and the tall ships moored all around us. It seemed both peaceful and exciting, and I admit that for a moment I simply stood breathing the fresh air and gazing out into the darkness back to land, where the dark line of the Downs could be seen beyond the town, a stroke of black paint on a starry canvas.
Dear me, I am waxing fanciful in my descriptions. I must watch this lest I return a poet. If I return at all. I am not usually given to homesickness or a particular pride in the country of my birth, but standing on the slightly swaying deck with a forest of high masts and tangled rigging above me, and seeing firm land so far removed already made me realise for the first time the grandeur and the danger of the journey I am going to embark on. It will return me a changed man, I have no doubt of that. But whether for good or ill remains to be seen.