I was reasonably twisted on the laudanum I had packed in case of seasickness, washed down with gin and water, when a relentless hammering on the door of my cabin recalled me from the depths. It was McIntyre, bearing an enamel mug of steaming black coffee and a request from Captain Lakeman to join him for a conference in Major Seton’s private quarters in fifteen minutes. I accepted the coffee with bleary-eyed thanks. Lakeman had obviously got the measure of me already, and it was disconcerting to accept that I was so transparent: the tortured and self-destructive artist, the doomed romantic. It had been a stylish affectation in my youth, but now, like Coleridge and De Quincey, I was just another pathetic inebriate.
‘Any idea what’s in the wind?’ I said.
‘I really couldn’t say, sir,’ said he, ‘but if I were to guess I would suggest that your recent dispatch concerning the rangers has either found favour with the Major, or caused him great offence.’
‘That’s what I was thinking.’
Both options were equally credible, but I was pleasantly numb enough just then to be temporarily free of my natural state of near-crippling anxiety, so cared not particularly one way or the other. I set about making myself as presentable as possible, cooling the coffee with a splash of the blue ruin.
Seton’s cabin was at the stern end of the upper deck. I knocked politely and entered with exaggerated sobriety. It was a relatively roomy cabin, arranged as an office, with a desk and blotter, an irregular selection of chairs and even a well-stocked bookcase; a curtain behind the desk divided the space and partially concealed a crude bunk much like my own. Lakeman was already there, conversing in friendly terms with Seton and Wright, while Ensign Russell hovered silently in the background. All three senior officers were standing and drinking tea, although the sun was by then well past the yard arm. Seton greeted me formally but pleasantly and offered me a brew. I would have preferred strong drink or a cigar, but any sort of stage prop suited me in such challenging social situations so tea it was. Judging by the general air of conviviality I was not there to receive a dressing down.
The symposium now assembled, Seton invited us to sit and took his place behind the desk. ‘I’ll just fill Mr. Vincent in, if I may,’ he said. Wright and Lakeman nodded their assent and Seton addressed himself to me while Russell minuted. ‘I am as Saul on the road to Damascus, Mr. Vincent,’ said he, ‘if you take my meaning.’
‘You have had a revelation,’ I ventured.
‘Indeed I have, Mr. Vincent,’ he said, ‘although not a pleasant one.’
‘You mean a sort of dark epiphany,’ I said.
‘Quite,’ said he, thoughtfully. ‘Having recently witnessed the military acumen of the supposedly best of the young men now in my charge,’ he continued, ‘I am forced to confront the very plain fact that the majority of the soldiers on board are inexperienced, undertrained, and therefore woefully ill-prepared for the tasks and trials ahead.’
‘In a word,’ said I, ‘they are all doomed.’
Seton did not immediately speak, but he nodded sadly. ‘As I have been explaining to Captains Wright and Lakeman,’ he finally said, ‘I feel most strongly that these issues must be addressed, and quickly, and the only chance to do so is while at sea.’
I began to see where this conversation was leading. Seton was an intelligent man and a born administrator, and it was clear to him that this task was best served through the mutual co-operation of all the disparate contingents on board, regimental and otherwise. His grand vision, he soon explained, was that the entire voyage be turned into an elaborate training course, comprising intensive drilling and gunnery instruction, but also offering a comprehensive series of improving lectures. To achieve this marvel of organisation, he needed to make the best use of all the resources at his disposal, and these included Lakeman and myself. He was too polite to say it, but he had obviously also revised his opinions regarding our general and mutual worth, given that we had both acquitted ourselves decently over the Granger fiasco, and had thus proved ourselves to be gentlemen; or, as Lakeman had put it, ‘He may be an idiot, but he’s our idiot.’
Seton’s suggestion was that the Graveyard Rangers, though he did not call them such, should be more fully assimilated and welcomed into the bosom of Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, at least for the duration of the voyage, treated equally with all the other British Army squads on board, and subject to Queen’s Regulations. There would therefore take full part in the training, while Lakeman and his staff would volunteer their expertise as instructors as, intriguingly, would I. While Lakeman taught skirmish tactics, Wright lectured on Africa (being the only officer on board to have served there), and each senior company officer acquainted his men with regimental history, I would be edifying the troops with lessons on English language and literature.
‘You might also offer a few classes to the ladies on board,’ said Seton, ‘separately of course.’
‘Of course,’ I said.
‘Perhaps including a little literary composition,’ he continued, ‘to ease the tedium of the voyage.’
‘And keep ’em out of trouble,’ added Wright.
Seton would naturally be the chancellor of our floating academy, also drilling, and teaching something he called the ‘art of war.’ He was also a natural linguist, and hoped to school the men in some of the South African dialects they would need to function in any useful way up country, which he had been diligently studying with Wright’s help. It was an ambitious and remarkably progressive approach to military management, and Seton’s commitment to the education of his men impressed me greatly. I therefore agreed to help in any way I could, also mindful of what a fine story this would make for the Chronicle.
‘There’s just one thing, Mr. Vincent,’ said Seton, casually, as I was taking my leave. ‘No Marx, Engels, or O’Connor if you please.’
I assured him that I would restrict my remarks to gentlemen of letters and he appeared quite reassured, although I was already constructing a lecture upon the ‘Condition of England’ novel in my mind that might have made him quite nervous.
‘Well that’s a turn up for the bloody books,’ said Lakeman, when we were safely out of earshot.
I returned to my berth inwardly planning lectures on the philosophy of literary form, and a variety of subjects and authors that I felt I could either discourse on from memory or to which I had access on the ship. Seton travelled with a small private library, and had offered to lend me the complete works of Shakespeare, while I always had my father’s copy of Lyrical Ballads about me, although I pretty much had that off by heart anyway. I thus had Shakespeare and the early Romantics covered, both areas I knew I could extemporise around further, while my own role in the development of the contemporary English novel certainly gave me much to talk about, especially with regard to the popular authors of the day, whose work I knew as well as the men, and, occasionally, the women, themselves.
I must confess that I felt quite elated at the prospect. It had been a while since I had been accorded any such respect as a literary scholar, and my spirits were pitifully lifted. Were my dear wife present she would have pointed out that Seton had known exactly the right line to take with me, which was intellectual flattery, and that thus buttered I had essentially blundered into a lot of extra and unpaid work. But despite overwhelming experience to the contrary (which Grace would have also reminded me), I felt that naive sense of hopefulness returning to my shrivelled soul, as it always did when I was presented with a literary project; a feeling that suggested that this work, although voluntary and transitory, might actually lead somewhere, perhaps to some sort of academic appointment in the military that might finally give my family a few hundred a year. It is this type of idiot optimism that keeps men like me writing, grinding away every day at the wheel of fortune, and tricking ourselves and our loved ones into believing that a life devoted to literature is never wasted.
The Articles of War had now been read, and after our eventful sojourn in the precincts of Cork Harbour, it was finally time to get under weigh. While the military and the press had been playing silly buggers, Salmond and his crew had been ceaselessly toiling to prepare the ship for her voyage, taking on and stowing fresh water, meat, and coal. It was incredible to me to think that it was now only the end of the first week of the New Year. So much had already come to pass. There were now almost seven hundred souls on board, five hundred-odd of them military personnel, then about fifty civilians, with the balance comprising the ship’s company. Lakeman said that the ship was now reminiscent of Waterloo Station on the May Day bank holiday. The cramped and crowded conditions put me more in mind of prison, but I kept that to myself and mumbled some apposite comparison with the crowds attending the Great Exhibition.
The colours were hoisted at eight bells on the Wednesday morning, and ‘Hands to station for leaving harbour’ was piped. The hands had, as ever, fallen in at five bells and had thus been cleaning for the last hour and a half. The ship was positively gleaming in the low winter sun, the decks swabbed and polished, and the copper and brass burnished like gold. The mooring parties fore and aft singled up, pushing the great capstans as if on a treadmill. I had managed to talk my way onto the Bridge beneath the poop awning, and was there when Brodie reported to Salmond that the ship was ready to proceed. The word was given, and with the pilot boat ahead of her the great ship edged outwards from the quay and gathered way, with Richards, the Master’s Assistant, at the wheel. Ship and boat soon parted, upon which the company took up a rousing and spontaneous cheer. With the ship now under her own power we soon left the Lee and steamed into the Celtic Sea, thrusting, like destiny’s tool, into the black Atlantic.
TO BE CONTINUED…
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