Making life on the ship a deal more complicated than it had been, women and children had now boarded. The presence of more civilians at least made my position more tenable and less isolated, but the young families in particular made my heart ache for my own. I had managed thus far to not dwell upon this lack by immersing myself in the company of military men by day, while tapping the admiral and then writing at night, so as to have something halfway decent to dispatch to the Chronicle before we sailed. Thus far all these activities and attendant mental states (observer, reporter, and drunk) had served as albeit very different distractions from a loneliness upon which I did not dare to fixate. Now, however, I was to be tormented by other peoples’ wives and children, and thus constantly reminded of my own family and our extended separation.
‘Tell me you’re coming back to me,’ Grace had said when we parted, ‘for I cannot live without you.’ That was not at all the case, but I thanked her in my heart for saying so. At almost half my age, attractive, talented and resourceful, the reality was that she would be a deal better off without me.
My little man had wobbled up upon my chair by the window to wave enthusiastically when I took my leave, as he always did when I went out to work or run an errand, only this time I had not come back. I wondered how he had coped with my absence. I fretted about his sleep. A disturbance in his routine invariably resulted in troubled nights for at least a week, and if I was detained by work and unable to read him to sleep he would be less than impressed at my replacement by his mother. I wondered if he had become used to her telling bedtime stories already, wanting him to have adapted for her sake and his, but in equal part hoping that he missed our time together so that I would not easily be forgotten. And I had barely been away a week of an expedition that would at the very least take six months to complete.
I marvelled at how military families survived. It was not uncommon in those days for regiments to be posted to the colonies for years at a time, sometimes decades. In response, the British Army had learned to create familiar little domestic enclaves across the empire, at least for its officer class, so a version of English suburbia could now be found in the heart of deserts and jungles, all as transient and fake as the sets in a theatre. The gentlewomen presently taking the bracing morning air on the upper deck attended by their servants (some with golden headed toddlers tottering around their feet that were breaking my heart), were the wives of officers who were brave or determined or desperate enough to join their husbands at the Cape, all taking their places in the imperial harlequinade.
While I was thus taking stock of the new passengers and pining for my wife and son, our good Captain approached and slapped me on the back with such force that my teeth rattled in my head. ‘Let us consider the words of the late Reverend Knox, Mr. Vincent,’ said he, quoting from memory: ‘“the first blast of the trumpet against this monstrous regiment of women.”’ He roared with laughter, and then notably lowered his voice. ‘Only these foppish army prigs would take their womenfolk to war, Mr. Vincent. It is to your credit, sir, that you left your family where it is.’
I thanked him for his generous praise of my conduct, and managed to hold my tongue beyond that. I would have lost all credibility in his eyes by confessing how much I already missed them, and that the only reason that my family did not accompany me was that Doyle, my editor, would not spring for the extra passage and I had not the blunt to fund it myself.
Salmond, meanwhile, was continuing his complaint against women and children travelling on a troop carrier. Culhane, the ship’s surgeon, had, he said, just informed him that six of these women were with child. ‘Six,’ he repeated, in a kind of apoplectic amazement. One was one too many in his opinion, and as it turned out he was entirely in the right in this assertion, for within a fortnight half of them were dead.
A small boy in a blue sailor suit on the lower deck was now pointing at us and waving for some reason. It was possible his mother had identified the Captain, or perhaps he just found us amusing, Salmond in his towering stovepipe hat and me in my huge overcoat, both of us resembling villains in a play. I doubt he knew who I was, for he seemed a trifle young to be a fan of the penny dreadfuls. I cheerfully returned the greeting without thought, but Salmond just glowered.
‘The rod has evidently been spared with that one,’ he said, with a fearsome, Palmerstonian expression on his face, like a bulldog chewing a wasp. ‘I would rather face typhoons and tidal waves, Mr. Vincent, or sunken reefs and sea monsters,’ said he, ‘than exchange hollow pleasantries with an army officer’s wife or her offspring, hectoring me with silly requests for tours of the ship, and asking endless, ignorant, and impertinent questions.’ He paused then, and we both smiled, for we each knew that I had been doing precisely that ever since I had come aboard. ‘Don’t take that wrong, my friend,’ he said, ‘I am always delighted to talk to the press.’
I reassured him that nothing untoward had been inferred at my end, and he removed himself, with an easier heart no doubt, in the direction of his cabin, with the intention, he said, of taking a cigar and consulting his charts. If he remained in the open, after all, one of the women might have the temerity to engage him in conversation. ‘Mark my words, Mr. Vincent,’ he said over his shoulder, this is going to be a long voyage.’
With the likes of you at the helm, I thought, that may well be the case.
Brodie, the Master of the ship, managed to head him off while still in earshot. ‘Report, Mr. Brodie,’ said the Captain, suddenly all business.
‘We’re ahead of schedule, sir,’ said Brodie, another older man who had, like his commander, also seen action. Unlike his superior, I received the distinct impression that Mr. Brodie was perfectly content to serve on a troop carrier rather than a warship. ‘Will we be swinging the ship, sir?’ he said.
I confess that upon hearing this term I eavesdropped as nonchalantly as was possible. I was vaguely interested in compass calibration, for the effect that iron hulls had upon the instrument was the primary complaint from the oak lobby regarding safe navigation. To write about this ship I needed to understand such things. There was a deviation, apparently, but it was a standard one and could therefore be determined and compensated by placing the vessel on various headings and comparing compass readings with corresponding but previously determined magnetic directions. This practice was more usually known as ‘swinging.’
‘I am perfectly satisfied with the correctness of the compass, Mr. Brodie,’ said Salmond. ‘Now carry on.’ Brodie excused himself and returned to his duties, while Salmond made purposefully for the greatly desired privacy of his cabin, like a shot off a shovel.
‘He can move when he wants to,’ said Lakeman, joining me at the rail.
He offered me one of his weird French cigarettes, which are over and done with in less than half a dozen drags but which leave you immediately wanting another. We smoked in silence for a while, each privately assimilating the alteration in social circumstances now inflicted upon us, and trying not to be too obvious about our mutual observation of the ladies.
Officer’s wives have to keep up appearances, and it had to be said that there were some handsome women gliding along the deck in their fashionable crinolettes. I confess that I used to find the bodice and the bustle about broad hips and a solid waist extremely alluring, but I have learned from experience that what lies beneath is generally far less attractive, and thus treat any social interaction with extreme caution. As my old partner in crime Reynolds liked to joke, there were only two types of women in my life, anyway: my wife and everyone else. To all the other women of the world I attempted to be chivalrous at all times, yet guarded and defensive, like a medieval knight facing a queen or a dragon. Although in my case, I thought, as I regarded these bourgeois women circling below, a more honest analogy might be that of an exorcist facing a legion of devils and uppity revenants that continued to torment him but which one of more faith would have defeated years since. By the look of Captain Lakeman, conversely, I fancied I might have spied a different kind of chink in his armour.
I asked him if he was married.
‘Heaven forfend!’ said he, ‘Do I look as if I’m married?’
I had to admit that he did not. He looked neither worn down or cared for, trapped, content, resentful or guilty. Neither did his features bear the pride or worry of a father.
As his occupation suggested, I replied, he seemed to me a free agent.
‘Exactly so,’ said he, ‘I take great pleasure in the society of women, but on my own terms, which do not involve marriage, at least not to me.’ He left that final clause hanging in the air for a moment before he continued. ‘Can you think of anything,’ he said, ‘quite frankly more inhumane than subjecting someone you love to the life of a soldier?’
I could, in point of fact, though I did not answer. I had subjected someone I loved to the life of a writer, which was arguably worse.
That evening the wardroom took on the air of the main restaurant at Mivart’s of Mayfair, which seemed to suit some of our party more than others. Rolt and Bond were in their element, and conversed with great enthusiasm upon Society matters with the elegant women whose husbands were of such a senior rank that the Captain had no choice but to invite them to dine at his table. It was nevertheless notable that Salmond, Wright, and Seton, the latter closely followed by Russell, all excused themselves swiftly after dinner in order to attend to pressing matters concerning our imminent departure. The slightly more worldly subalterns Lucas and Giderot were actively attempting to flirt with a brace of quite glamorous older women, the comely brunette Mrs. Spruce and the statuesque redhead Mrs. Montgomery, but both men were being hopelessly outclassed by Lakeman, against whose French blood and genuine war stories they stood no chance.
Lieutenant Fairtlough was again significant by his absence, being once more down with the seasickness. The other infantryman, Granger, had also elected to keep himself to himself, having received what we used to call in the Flash tongue a chancery suit upon the nob, courtesy of the soft end of Private Barker’s rifle, and his lower jaw had swollen to the shape and proportions of an oriental chamber pot. His subordinate in the ill-fated landing party, Ensign Metford, was, on the other hand, in attendance, and paying the most shy but intimate attention to a pale young Irish beauty who looked considerably out of her depth in the present company. This was the newly wedded Mrs. Metford, although when I first set eyes on her I had assumed the poor dear to be a servant. She was a Galway girl, and the two had been married the week before after a mutual coup de foudre. It was all very romantic, but she would be the death of her husband’s fledgling career. It was plain to me that she was Catholic. I wondered if he knew he was doomed, or at that moment even cared.
The Granger business had been carried off with a certain amount of grace on all sides, although I suspected that his prospects for military advancement might now be as dick in the green and generally dingable as the career of Ensign Metford, unless there was a world war coming. Lakeman had formally and publically apologised for the conduct of Private Barker, who had escaped a flogging only because of the conditions of the exercise, which had been simulated combat. Barker had argued that it was a perfectly sound military tactic to ‘take out the enemy chief,’ as he put it, and even Seton had been forced to partially concede the point. His late tackle had nonetheless cost Barker his pay for the duration of the voyage, as well as extra duties and forfeiture of his share of the prize money. As he considered himself the victor of the skirmish he was not best pleased, but he did, upon Lakeman’s order, mutter an apology to Granger and Seton that was begrudgingly accepted. Judging from the murderous look in his eye ever since, I think Private Barker would have taken to the lash with more pleasure. As he was not bound by oath like a soldier of the Crown, it was a mystery to me why he did not simply desert, for I was sure a man of his obvious talents could have easily found a way off the ship.
Lakeman still relieved the officers of the fifty guineas, but in return he had then given more ground by suggesting that the battle had been a close run thing, and that the outcome would have no doubt been very different had he not known the landing party was coming. This was all pure balloon juice, but still a magnanimous gesture for all that, and a needful one. Lakemen knew as well as any there present that for the chain of command to continue to function on board Granger had to save some face. We had therefore constructed a narrative in which neither the drilling competition nor the subsequent scrap had been quite so one-sided.
My contribution to this necessary fiction had required a certain compromise of my professional ethics, although I had long since learned that eating dry bread on one’s principles was not so much noble as reckless and suicidal, both traits, admittedly, often associated with heroism, but no way to feed one’s family. I had started my career as a journalist armed with a simple code taught to me by that wise old Irish quill driver, Egan, which ran: Report what you see, be sure of your facts, never miss a deadline, and write it well.
‘For once you’ve gone to press,’ he would say, ‘you’re going to have to live with it.’
It had been by my communication of this notionally straightforward doctrine to the pencil pushers of Pall Mall that the War Office had let me anywhere near Her Majesty’s Armed Forces in the first place. Given my well known political affiliations, this acquiescence was still something of a surprise, although I suspect that it was not my stated commitment to verisimilitude, efficiency and quality that carried the application so much as my hastily scrawled endorsement from Dickens. I had not given him a choice on this matter. He owed me.
My articles were to be carried with military dispatches, my first series going from Queenstown before we set sail. These covered the details of the ship, a brief biographical sketch of senior personnel, and an account of the Spike Island debacle. There was no point trying to censor the latter subject. It was already a topic of discussion and great amusement in every bar in which soldiers drank all across the province of Munster. The story, however, that is the events as they actually happened that day, could be arranged by the expedient of simple plotting into any number of different yet equally valid accounts. It was a matter of basic narratologie, I had explained to Seton. Stories are stories at the end of the day, whether literary fiction, journalism, science, religion, or the so-called historical record; but once the official version is in print and circulated in a respected published source it becomes, to all intents and purposes, the ‘truth,’ the history of the thing. It was not in my interests to humiliate the British Army. I desperately needed this job, and to do it I needed the co-operation of Seton and his staff. I had therefore written what everyone wanted, my Editor, Seton, Granger, and no doubt Wellington, the Prime Minister and Queen bloody Victoria herself.
My account of the exercises, as they were presented, was, I confess, somewhat economical with the actualité. As a compromise with my own standards, for the sake of professional and physical survival, I had indeed reported what I saw, just not all of it. But what else could I do? In my experience people do not want the truth. It is invariably either so absurd that they would not give it credence, or utterly dreadful, or both; and those that attempt to tell it are discredited or otherwise silenced through a variety of means, ranging from black balls and slander to being publically flayed, burned or crucified. I was too old for martyrdom (again), and the dustbin men would never take me. I had thus decided that in the present circumstances, at least, the emperor’s new clothes looked perfectly all right to me.
Having already written on the new recruits and Lakeman’s private soldiers, I kept the rivalry between them in my narrative, but made it temperate and sportsmanlike, while the bet became a gentleman’s wager where no money changed hands. I described the drill in terms of pageantry and military precision, making much of the gloomy gothic splendour of the setting, but playing it up as a fort and down as a prison. No bayonets were dropped, and I essentially presented the outcome as a draw. As Lakeman was going to win the mock battle whatever, this concession returned some honour to the professionals. The toast was presented in humorous colours, in the manner of a scene from Life in London or The Pickwick Papers, and I painted such a fine portrait of Mr. Grace that I can only hope that should I ever join the increasing ranks of radical journalists under his care that he will look upon me kindly.
I was pretty honest about the actual engagement at the graveyard, only Lakeman’s sentries overwhelmed Granger’s probes in a more chivalrous way in my version, the redcoats were bested but not completely routed, and the incident with Barker was entirely omitted. Lakeman’s men were presented as no better than Granger’s, just slightly more seasoned, while also having the natural advantage of a defending force. I concluded that the entire affair had been an excellent training event, morale booster, and bonding experience for the floating population of the ship. I called the piece ‘The Graveyard Rangers.’
When it was done, I shared the fruits of my labours with Lakeman. ‘You have found the perfect name for the company,’ he declared, hooting with delight.
I inwardly prayed that when Reynolds and Grace saw this obviously gross and cynical misrepresentation in the Chronicle they would read between the lines and realise that I was compelled by circumstances to thus coat with sugar. I might once have been able to claim that I was working undercover, subverting from within and all that, but that wouldn’t wash these days. I had well and truly sold out.
Lakeman’s man, Private McIntyre, delivered my dispatches to Seton, and I returned to my cabin with the intention of drinking myself to sleep. A drowsy ocean of ink black water washed up to meet me. I closed my eyes, fell in and was gone.
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