A lazy Sunday, Surprise moored fore and aft, motionless off the mole in a fairly empty harbour. An artist, perhaps Canaletto, would guide his brush to soft earth colors to render the amber afternoon light of a quiet Mediterranean afternoon. An unspoken reverence for silence permeated what crew remained on board, all aware of how much they would miss this simple pleasure with the unforgiving cry of ‘All hands’ at dawn the following morning.
The diffused light in the aft cabin was sufficient to allow Jack to read and write. His new responsibilities, in command of a detached squadron, brought the inevitable high tide of paperwork, the bane of a fighting officer’s existence. ‘Stephen,’ he said, ‘you’re a great hand with a phrase, what say you to this? I’m writing out an order to Captain Thomas of the Undaunted to take station off Cape Creux. Do you know Richard Thomas, Stephen? God help me, I am getting on; I served under his father when he was First aboard Bellerophon, 44. Heneage Dundas and I were quite intimidated by him, a right, and by-the-book tyrant. But Richard is very sensible and a first rate officer.
‘Forgive me, I wander, Stephen. I beg your pardon. I write, ‘Take station off Cape Creux….for the purpose of watching the Bay of Rosas and parts adjacent, etc., etc… it being left to his discretion….such means as may be in your power,’ now, here Stephen’…. ‘either for the assistance of our allies or for the annoyance of our enemies,’ stressing the last phrase. ‘Don’t you like that; ain’t it droll?’ ‘To be sure,’ said Stephen with generous enthusiasm, ‘it’s the drollest turn of a phrase ever to fly off your pen. I am sure Mr. Thomas will warm to it straight away.’ Jack beamed with satisfaction.
‘Stephen,’ said Jack some moments later, his voice artificially quizzical as he rested his worn pen on yet another stack of official papers, ‘what does it signify about the desire to achieve a great ambition only to have it seem less urgent, less important as one reaches the goal?’ Stephen, slouching in a shaded corner of the cushioned bench running athwartships under the Great Cabin’s elegant windows, looked sideways at Jack, knowing he would say more and the rhetorical question merely a preamble. Stephen’s focus was on the industry of a rather nondescript spider, ostentatiously rigging, naval fashion, its gossamer system of lines and stays. ‘God knows’, Jack went on, ‘it seems I’ve spent my entire life in chase of my Flag; flogging ships and crews, happily enduring any hardship, bleeding on enemy decks, always ‘Huzza times three!’ for the Crown but always, always,’ his voice trailing off, ‘hoisting my Flag.’
‘The trouble, my dear,’ said Stephen in a sympathetic voice after a suitable silence, ‘is the juxtaposition, certainly cruel to the military mind, of the simultaneous prospect of victory and peace thwarting the long awaited-recognition of promotion. It is not unlike that whimsical game we played some years back on the other side of the world, with the sticks and ball; just when you reach a point to do well for your side the match is stopped abruptly; you are stymied, unfulfilled.’ Jack looked at him closely, satisfied that he was not being jocose as he recalled how he and the other Surprises witnessed the embarrassing sight of Stephen running wildly around the Cricket pitch thinking he was playing a game of his Irish youth. ‘It’s a painful irony, Brother;’ Stephen continued in a sympathetic tone, ‘at the moment the military should be celebrating its imminent and glorious victory over the tyrant, it embraces moroseness. The mantle of glory is gleefully and, in many cases, shamefully worn by those with no part in its achievement. This we witnessed after Amiens.’
‘That’s the heart of it, Stephen. Your finger is on it.’ Jack sank even lower in his chair. Stephen noticed again, as he had in recent days, the physical decline; the bilious pallor, his bulk, so formidable and intimidating whether on enemy decks or Admiralty offices, now suggested, ludicrously, one of Jack’s much coveted puddings. Stephen contemplated another, more disquieting corollary; the increase in his friend’s physical corpus appeared to match a marked decline in his natural optimism, his ebullience, the essential core of his leadership qualities. He put the thought aside.
‘Yes, you have it, Stephen,’ said Jack, heaving himself up with regained, if slightly false energy. ‘That’s the way of it.’ ‘Look at this, at least two-stone of documents, and precious little of it to do with fighting the enemy, a real enemy God damn it, not some ragged coastal pirates.’ ‘Look at this,’ color rising on his cheeks as he waved and threw aside a document with a broken Admiralty seal, ‘a complaint from some clerk, safely hiding this many year behind some moldy files, suggesting that my request for grape and round shot: mark this Stephen, ‘appeared inordinate!’ The vile scrub. They can’t wait to strip us our weapons. Do they think we’ll become bored and rake Portsmouth with a broadside? Both their spirits lifted with Jack’s undisguised pleasure in his own rhetorical imagery.
‘Killick, there,’ Jack called in a decisive voice. ‘Stephen, let’s share a glass of Sherry and drink to better days and absent shipmates. No more counting barrels and hoops today.’ ‘Killick,’ in a louder voice. ‘And I’m right here, amen’t I,’ came the petulant reply from Jack’s weathered servant, bent and backing in through the cabin door with the decanter. ‘And’ in a lower mumble, ‘not taking my ease like some’s I might mention.’
Tiny motes of dust slowly appeared and disappeared within the slanting, golden shafts of late day sun that dappled the green baize cloth on the cabin table and the highly polished wooden floor. The soft glow enhanced the air of languid stillness as Jack and Stephen sipped their drinks in companionable silence.
‘Stephen,’ Jack said quietly, ‘pray give me your advice, in the medical line that is, informally, of course, regarding a dream I had not long ago, a dream that has now returned. Invariably it awakens me and leaves my mind unsettled.’ ‘As many dreams do,’ my Dear,’ replied Stephen. ‘Do go on.’
‘It’s my barge,’ Stephen. ‘It drifts off our quarter gallery in a mist and here’s the thing, Barrett Bonden stands easy at the tiller, Dillon is aboard looking up, as is that unfortunate young mid, your countryman Geoghegan. There are others I can’t make out but all familiar and all, of course, dead. No one quite looks up at the ship; they just stand off and drift alongside. It doesn’t take much imagination, of course, to smoke that they’re waiting for me, but they never come alongside. You know I’m not a superstitious person, Stephen, but this makes me damn uneasy in my mind.’
Stephen avoided the temptation to remind Jack that the entire naval establishment was hostage to all forms of superstition, with Jack no exception. ‘Be easy, my dear, it’s all of a piece,’ replied Stephen casually, professionally. ‘God knows you’re not the only one dreading a peacetime Navy, living from day to day with the fear of going ashore. It’s a form of professional death, to be sure.’
‘There’s a French philosopher from the last age,’ he went on, ‘who would proclaim: ‘I fight, therefore I am.’ A warrior without battle is an anachronism. Our mutual friends in the barge are reminders of your fears; their battles are over, they are lifeless, God rest their souls.’ ‘You must not look aft,’ he said knowingly in a stronger, encouraging voice, ‘but forward, on a bowline, as we say.’ Jack listened attentively and smiled at Stephen’s evident pleasure in not quite serving up an apt naval metaphor.
‘Now, Jack,’ Stephen continued in a tone reserved for recalcitrant patients, but as well to defuse the power of Jack’s dream, ‘as you have consulted me professionally on this matter, let me extend my observations to include my concerns over your physical condition. You have allowed your secret fears to overwhelm an already weak constitution against excess in the way of food and drink. I fear your imaginary barge will come alongside any day now, and not because you may lose your Flag. Your dreaded ‘lee shore’ will appear while reaching for yet another chop or helping of Plum Duff. Your sallow countenance and overindulgence has become a particular concern of mine professionally, of course, but may I also add, as your friend. The Dear God knows the irony and sinfulness of a medical man, and a Christian, prescribing the refreshing tonic of war to cheer up a gloomy patient.’
‘There was a time, Doctor,’ bowing to Stephen, ‘when I would have dismissed your counsel as well intentioned but not necessary. But, I will admit, in your private medical ear, I do feel the weight;’ – he suppressed the thought of calling out the pun – ‘the weight of the interminable administrative and social duties required of my position. How I look back on Keith, Melville, Harte and the rest with a sense of apology for my uninformed opinions of their behaviour. By God, your ‘tonic’ of a fleet action or a simple cutting out would answer handsomely indeed.’
‘However, Stephen, today is hardly a propitious time for lectures on indulgence. I trust you’ve not forgotten our appointment this evening at Government House, the literary event, you recall? Normally not my thing, but the Guest of Honour is very well with the Admiralty. Much caressed for his books and pamphlets on the glories of the fighting Navy – Beat to Quarters, Heart of Oak, Every man… and such. I believe your distinguished patient, Prince William, is a particular patron.
‘His name is O’Brian,’ said Stephen. ‘Quite right, Jack replied. ‘He did wonders for Cochrane. Have I spoken of Cochrane, Stephen, now a Lord?’ ‘I cannot say that you have,’ he said. ‘Well, the short form is this; as a young Lieutenant, he had the Speedy, 14, a Brig, back in the Year One. In fact, Harte was CIC, excuse me, Commander in Chief in the Med at the time. Poor Harte. At any rate, Cochrane stunned the Spanish, and everyone else for that matter, by taking the Spanish Frigate El Gamo, 32. A most amazing and warm action.’
‘I see, thank you,’ said Stephen. ‘But tell me Jack, in your considerable wisdom in all things nautical, pray explain the penchant for sailor s to describe the bloody carnage wrought by shot and sword as ‘warm.’ Is that not an affectation, a consciously false inversion of realty, perhaps a desire to call attention, to emphasize extraordinary danger by minimizing its scope?’
‘An ‘affectation’ do you say, Stephen?’ ‘Really.’ Jack turned from the mirror where he was shaving. The lively eye, twitching mouth and the dancing semaphore of his brows were familiar signals of a Cannonade about to be fired. ‘And, my dear Doctor, with your wisdom in all things medico, perhaps you might explain the possible hint of affectation when lifting off a man’s skull, rousing out his brains in front of his mates on the foredeck, setting them to rights, reattaching the lot, sitting him up to hear a hornpipe and dismissing the spectacle as merely some ‘needle and thread’ work?’ As the shot found its mark, Stephen replied, somewhat meekly, ‘Yes, I must confess and admit to the peccant point of your response,’ as he turned to avoid the triumphant stare from Jack.
‘In any event,’ said Jack, too much of a friend to relish his victory for long, ‘this Doctor O’Brian, for he is a Doctor of sorts, Stephen, but not in the medical line, set out Cochrane’s story in a Novella that captured, you’ll forgive the pun, the imagination of the Country. Admiralty and Whitehall of course, couldn’t get enough of it, popular opinion at the time being somewhat cool to the Service. It certainly helped Cochrane; yet it was most deserved, the talk of the Fleet ever since. In fact, Stephen, I met the later Captain Cochrane on one of the two occasions when I dined with Lord Nelson. Have I not told you, I must have, about my meeting Admiral Nelson, Stephen?’
‘I believe you had a conversation with him where he advised you to go straight for the salt and forget about the pepper, am I not mistaken,’ he said, earnestly attempting to please Jack with an accurate recollection, and to regain favor after his unfortunate remark about ‘affectation.’ ‘Yes,’ replied Jack, sagging theatrically in front of his small mirror with a wholly genuine sigh of defeat, ‘Yes, Stephen, something along those lines.’
‘I am acquainted with Doctor O’Brian,’ said Stephen. Jack turned from his washbasin. ‘Are you really, Stephen, how wide your circle of acquaintances!’ ‘We met at Trinity where, incidentally, he received his honorary Doctorate. Much revered in Dublin, as well, I might add. My Irish cousins, the Fitzgerald line, speak well of him although his position and activities during the Rising were somewhat ambiguous. But Edward’s word is good enough for me.’ The good Doctor is an eminent hand in the writing line, both acclaimed and claimed by both Kingdoms. Ancient, of course, but quite deep and certainly knows what’s o’clock in many areas. At the risk of an indiscretion, though I am comfortable offering it for your ears, I once saw him visiting with some of my particular acquaintances in the Ministry.’
‘Do you think, Jack,’ Stephen changed the subject with a casual, and altogether unconvincing lack of interest, ‘that he may be accompanied by his amanuensis, the youngish woman to whom we showed a leg at last week’s glorious evening of Boccherini and Cherubini sonatas?’
Jack brightened, ‘Was she not the one the Marine officers were reconnoitering all evening, the pretty dark hair who scandalized those in range with her irreverent, though quite witty, remark about an evening of ‘ini and bini’ Italian music?’
‘Yes, just so,’ replied Stephen as he turned to hide a trace of a smile at the memory of the remark and the woman making it. ‘Vivien Green, I believe’ he said absently. ‘Miss Vivien Green.’
‘Why do you ask,’ said Jack absent-mindedly, then stiffening with horror at his gaffe; instantly regretting the words that slipped their moorings before he could belay their passage. ‘Oh my Dear Stephen,’ he said most earnestly as he looked directly at Stephen and slowly placed a towel on the sideboard. ‘How very sorry I am to have asked such an impertinent, personal question. Do please, forgive me, I beg you.’
‘Never in life Brother; sure and wasn’t it a most logical response to my question?’ Stephen replied amiably. Jack was still reeling from his insensibility as he took a seat on the cushion near his old friend. ‘Jack, he went on kindly, ‘I have, these many days, over a year now in point of fact, grown to accept Diana’s death. I admit it affected me cruelly. The randomness, the inexplicable suddenness one might come to expect on the deck of a Man O’ War, but the ordinariness, the banality of a country road, a woman of such fire and spirit’: he left the thought in the air.
‘The point of my question,’ he went on, standing up with conviction, ‘perhaps my not quite spontaneous question regarding the aforementioned Miss Green or, more correctly, my revealing my interest in her is, perhaps, a way of casting off those lines that keep me attached to Diana in some absurd physical sense.’ He looked out the stern gallery windows and reflected as Jack sat mutely looking up at him. ‘Please do not ask forgiveness, my Dear,’ looking at Jack with the utmost kindness, ‘as it was I who shamefully used you as the lance to open my hidden heart.’
Pathologically punctual, Jack arrived at Government House with a more than slightly winded Stephen at precisely the moment the muted sound of four bells accompanied the turning of glasses aboard Surprise and each and every one of His Majesty’s Britannic ships in the harbour. Not surprisingly, with little in the way of diversion on a Sunday, a fairly large number of guests had already gathered in the courtyard: a slowly moving tide of multicolored uniforms of various military and diplomatic services, and the more unregulated, though equally competitive brilliance of female couture.
Stephen, as was his habit in any large gathering, occupied an area just removed from the ebb and flow of the unwritten but perfectly understood choreography of rank and position: removed enough to avoid pro forma greetings but not too singular to give offense to his host. Jack was comfortably navigating the tide, bobbing, smiling, amiable.
Unlike similar gatherings, where guests and agenda were predictably familiar, this assembly had an air of understated excitement. A ‘literary’ evening, enhanced by a generally shared anticipation of the end of hostilities, was a welcome respite from years of conversations dominated by battle, promotion, gossip and rations.
The guest list added spice: authors, their representatives, publishers: an entourage bravely venturing forth from the bosom of Berkley Square as the far off sound of gunfire grew both faint and, more to the point, remote. Many of them were here now; vicariously satisfying themselves that ‘bringing news from home’ was a sufficiently meritorious contribution to allow them to bond with their gallant countrymen.
But no Doctor O’Brian, as Stephen noted the muted pinging of his treasured Breguet timepiece: an old memento, as it were, lifted from the pocket of the still warm body of a French intelligence agent, a man whose future need to mark time was brutally rendered moot by Stephen just minutes before. Stephen dropped his small cigar on the ground as Jack tacked out of the mill, accompanied by a younger Naval Officer; ‘There you are Stephen,’ said Jack brightly, ‘allow me to present Captain Marryat.’ ‘Your servant, Sir,’ replied Steven with a bow. ‘I’m very pleased to meet you, Doctor,’ replied the younger man, thrusting out his hand in a very friendly manner.
‘Stephen, you recall I spoke yesterday of Captain Cochrane and the Speedy? ‘I do, ’ replied Stephen.’ ‘Well’ Jack eagerly went on, ‘Freddie here was aboard that wonderfully gallant ship and has told me some amazing, interesting things about their cruises. Perhaps I shall recount them to you later and, pausing momentarily as if abandoning the thought, turned again to Marryat, ‘So you’ve come down to pay your respects to Dr. O’Brian; you know him I gather?’ ‘Yes, as well as can be; he’s a deep old file I can tell you. Somewhat reclusive, not one to suffer fools, yet he can be most charming. He has a wry, occasionally caustic wit; delightful to hear, assuming one is not the object of the remark,’ at the same time raising a knowing eyebrow and cocking his head closer to Stephen and Jack. ‘In fact, I hope to consult him on some writings of my own regarding the Service.’
‘Are you, By God’ exclaimed Jack. ‘Yes, he is very well with the publishing firms in London, some of whom are here today. In fact, I have an understanding with Starling and Norris, Paternoster Row; they have tentatively expressed an interest in a manuscript of mine, fictional of course, otherwise Admiralty would rig the grate and I should be flogged round the great oceans,’ he added with an affectingly disingenuous chuckle. ‘Might I assume,’ asked Jack with twinkling foreknowledge, ‘that the ending of the book, where the Service is involved, ‘is a happy one?’ ‘Oh, a very safe assumption Sir, I do assure you,’ replied the Young man ’in a deep voice of mock seriousness.
It was not the still missing Dr. O’Brian that caused a small stir near the massive metal gates at the entrance to the forecourt, but his travelling companion, Miss Vivien. Accompanied by an older gentleman, both equally acknowledged small nods and bobs from those in their path. Whatever unarticulated attraction Stephen had been forming for Miss Green, it was exponentially enhanced, not by her looks nor elegantly understated green velvet dress, but by the sight of her entering the scene wearing the very blue spectacles that elicited so much comment when worn, frequently, by Stephen: ‘E’re comes the good Doctor, God love him, with his blue peepers’ was a remark guaranteed to have everyone on deck take discreet turns to see their much cherished ship’s surgeon wearing them on a sun-filled day.
Much the same was happening here. The pair swept by, a calculated and useful technique, Stephen clinically observed, of avoiding repeated stops and engaging people one had no interest in: the sense of purposeful motion its own explanation. In their wake, one could see a number of people motioning to their eyes, obviously noting Miss Vivien’s unusual adornment. Not unlike Diana in appearance, she was less fiery, less spontaneous, the attitude regal, more composed. Equally assured of herself, as was Diana, but less aggressive in revealing the fact. Fire without fireworks. ‘Should he approach her,?’ he wondered.
© 2000 Jim Reilly