A Royal Achievement
It all came about because of two random bits of conversations.
In the first, and apparently least significant , David was talking to the Marine that he had come to think of as his Marine.
They were on the quarterdeck and as the Officer of the Watch was in conversation with the Captain on the leeward side, David had wandered away to give them privacy. Their privacy was also his, and gave him a chance to talk to his friend.
His relationship with the Marine seemed strange. When they passed the time of day down on the lower decks, he had to differentiate between the freedom he enjoyed when he was there as a boy exploring the ship, and the formality demanded of him when he was on-duty. If he was on-duty then he was an officer and idle chatter was hardly appropriate, off-watch he could risk a little banter
On the quarterdeck that day was when he said…
“May I ask you your name. It seems impolite after all these months to simply call you Marine.”
“John Jenkins, Sir! But it would be better to call me Marine. Otherwise my officer will ask you to be less familiar. But, thank you Sir. It’s a kind thought.”
“Well John. He isn’t here. But, I promise not to embarrass either you or him. After my little enterprise in the stateroom, I don’t think that anything could embarrass me.”
He smiled. He was very fond of the Marine.
The Marine nearly smiled. “Well Sir, as to that, you did reveal your best side that day.”
“It was my brave front that let me down. I could manage a brave bottom it would seem, but my brave-front was far from upstanding.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that Sir. You paraded perfectly as far as I could see. Stand-easy was appropriate to the occasion. To have stood at attention would have been quite unnecessary… far too formal.”
Then he turned to the rail, so that he could smile.
So, that was how David came to know his Marine as John, and how they managed their first slightly bawdy conversation.
John had his own reasons to be glad that he had seen and helped David when he was at his most vulnerable… before the first stroke.
After that first stroke of the bosun’s rope-end, he had been able to reassure the boy that he had done well. The moment before the first stroke was when David had felt at his most foolish, and most vulnerable. After that moment he was simply in pain, more pain than any boy of his years could be expected to endure.
That he didn’t cry out, or plead… or even weep was remarkable in someone so young. That he endured it with dignity until unconsciousness came to his aid… if it hadn’t been amply witnessed, was well nigh unbelievable.
What’s more, John seriously admired the way the boy had coped with the crew’s approval afterwards.
He had seen that David made no attempt to milk the crews’ support. The boy took no liberties. He just went about his duties with a new seriousness. The crew too knew, as well as David, perhaps more so… the gunner’s daughter had done her job that afternoon, she had changed the boy forever.
The Marine and boy had chatted about all sorts of things. David was interested in what Marines actually did. They had their quarters positioned where it was easy to protect the senior officers if need be. They stood guard… but what did they do the rest of the time?
The answer really seemed to be that they got bored and waited for something interesting to happen. David surmised that his afternoon with the gunner’s daughter had started out as an interesting diversion… He asked John when the opportunity arose.
John conceded that the idea of seeing the admiral’s son punished did intrigue him when tasked with acting as escort. But, he saw the terror on the boy’s face when he walked in on him, and then the dignity and grim determination with which David marched to a largely unknown fate… That was when he fell in fatherly love with him.
When he grasped David’s wrists gently, and the boy, thinking the marine was being kind, smiled at him… his heart melted and he prayed that the ordeal wouldn’t break this brave little soul.
As it was, he watched as David triumphed over the grown men who had set out to hurt him. The triumph, that afternoon had altered John almost as much as it altered David. Perhaps the change was identical in nature… David became a leader of men, and John became a man who wanted to follow him. Though, as to where and why… that only their futures would reveal.
He, John, had been left with a desire to further the boy’s career, to help him grow as a man. What he really wanted, although he could never have articulated it… what he wanted was to be the father the boy so desperately needed. The father that he, John, no longer was. He wanted to provide the lad with a replacement for the father that David had so clearly rejected.
After all those hours of conversation during John’s duties on the quarter-deck, David was now closer to John than he had ever been to his own father… the father that he had exchanged very few words with in the past six months.
The Royal James and her attendant fleet were in the Mediterranean. Exotic smells came on warm breezes from the shore. John knew from experience that David was about to face a myriad of temptations, most of which would be a tragic waste if passed up.
He hoped that his young friend could safely succumb to temptation, safely while in his company. Delight in the boy’s face would help John to forget what he had seen there at the moment that the bo’sun’s rope-end descended… the utter disbelief that things could have come to this.
As the blow landed he had felt that he had failed this young boy. As a Marine he was sworn to protect the officers, but in his hands, while he held him down, an officer, a young boy of gentle-birth was being viciously assaulted.
It was some six months after the beating, that David’s John realised that all was not well with his young friend… He had to at least be a friend.
Something was seriously wrong. David was changing, he looked tired and he didn’t seem his admittedly serious, but cheerful self.
“You’ve seemed a bit down the last few days.”
“I’m sorry John. I’ll try to pull myself together. I don’t want the hands to notice… It’s just that… I haven’t been sleeping too well.”
“You can’t get to sleep?”
“No… I get to sleep alright, but then I dream and wake up. Then, once I remember what I was dreaming… I don’t want to go back to sleep!”
“A nightmare? Not the gunner’s-daughter again? You know lots of men have to relive their flogging in nightmares… It’ll stop, honestly it will.”
David paused for thought. He needed help, he knew he did. He needed someone to talk to, someone he could trust. There were so few of those, and his father wasn’t one of them. The nearest thing he now had as a father was…
“John, if I opened my darkest secret to you… and it really shocked you… could you keep it secret, forever?”
“Of course I would, and you can’t shock a Marine” He smiled. “I’ve seen the worst that can ever happen to you. Remember that.”
“No, this is far worse. It’s something I could never tell anyone… but maybe you.”
“Well, go on, while you feel up to it, what could be so bad?”
“I dream about the gunner’s daughter, and you holding my hands, and Jeremy is watching… and…”
“Well, I know… it was awful but…” John hadn’t let him get to the important bit.
“Please, let me get it out while I can… In my dream, it isn’t awful… well it is but…”
“Go on…” John wished that he could hold the boy’s hands.
“It’s awful… In my dream… I’m excited… I enjoy it, and it goes on and on!”
“Ah, I see.” John said, and he did, he really did. In a way he already shared what David considered an awful secret, but what could he say that would reassure the boy?
They stood companionably, looking out to sea. John was thinking about where to start, while David was relieved that he had at last told someone.
John decided that it was a good moment to get more than just the dream out of the way. There was also the matter of David’s father.
“Let me start where I think the beginning lies.” John hesitated. “It may not seem like it, but I think your problems started long before the gunner’s daughter. Before you joined the ship I suspect that the only person in your life was your father?”
John took a deep breath and plunged on, in an apparently strange direction.
“Before you joined the ship with your father, did you have a tutor, at home I mean?”
“Not really. Father was convinced that he knew better than the tutors we tried, and he said that schools were ‘just a way to turn the sons of gentlemen into ruffians’… Well, that’s what he said.”
“Just for once, I think that your father is a wise and sensible man, on the subject of education at least.” John smiled.
“Did he ever chastise you?”
“Yes, when I was naughty or lazy. He set me work to do or to study, and if I did well he praised me, and if I did poorly then he spanked me.”
“Never more than spanking, never a cane or a riding crop?”
“No, never.” David shook his head. “He once commented on that, he said that he wanted to turn me towards hard work, not turn me away from him.” David looked thoughtful.
“You think that was because he loved you too much to cane you, but sufficiently to take it upon himself to spank you?”
“Yes, that’s exactly what he said. I’m sure he hated spanking me. He seemed sad afterwards. His sadness hurt me more than the spanking.”
John thought quietly for a while.
“So, do you understand how you came to meet the gunner’s daughter? What changed in your father, in your relationship with him?”
“Not really!” David was clearly still angry.
“I think I do, understand what changed I mean.” John said.
The tall marine looking down seriously at his very small companion, his senior officer.
“It was your father’s error. He was distracted by the Restoration, by the problems of possible mutiny. He forgot something terribly important that day when you came aboard with him.”
David was paying the closest of attention. He sensed that this was important.
“Things changed for you that day, and he didn’t tell you. Your father should have told you, but in the excitement, he forgot. When you came on board with him as a Young-Gentleman, everything changed, you became an officer, and in doing that you became a man. He forgot to tell you.”
He cast about for an explanation.
“Do you know any Jews?” He asked, apparently irrelevantly, or so it seemed to David.
“I’ve met a few, but not so as to know them. Why?”
“Well, the Jews have a very useful ceremony, one that we Christians didn’t bring with us from their religion. The bar-mitzvah.”
“I may have… it’s a birthday party of some sort?”
“Not exactly… it’s more than that. At twelve or thirteen their boys are considered to have become old enough to be treated as men. In our religion we gradually emerge from boyhood and irresponsibility to become a man with a man’s responsibilities. For us, it’s hard to say when that happens. It varies from boy to boy, perhaps from father to father. For the Jews, it happens at the bar-mitzvah, there’s singing and chanting and the boy recites a long passage from the Old Testament that has to be word-perfect. From that moment he’s a man… and is expected to behave like one.”
“And, where do I come in?”
“Your father brought you onto the ship. That day he should have explained all the things a Jewish father needs to have taught his son about his bar-mitzvah. Maybe he didn’t think of it, maybe he forgot it. But the moment you came over the side, you were a man with a man’s responsibilities.” John took a deep breath, this would either ring true, or… “The moment you nearly sank the ship, your father realised that he had omitted something important. He tried to make up for it. The afternoon with the gunner’s daughter was your bar-mitzvah!”
“Good Lord! Seriously?”
“Seriously.” John looked relieved that his message was getting across. “Think about it, your attitude, the crews’ attitude towards you… everything changed that afternoon. You came into man’s estate.”
“You did. Since that afternoon you’ve been a man, and a man that the crew would follow into the gates of hell.”
“Good Lord…I hadn’t thought… Thank you!”
The Marine had given him his father back!
Just for a moment he forgot everything the Marine had said… and hugged him.
Shocked at what he had done, he sprang away, walked to the rail and stared out to sea…
So that the others wouldn’t see his tears.
It also meant that he couldn’t see the Marine’s
It took him three days to decide what should be done.
John watched him pacing the quarter-deck, deep in thought. He managed to avoid conversation with the boy. He was quite sure that the next move had to come from David, with no help from anyone.
David tried to get help from Jeremy.
“Well, all I can say that might help, was that your father didn’t look happy when it was going on. Maybe he looked… satisfied, but definitely not happy.”
He thought about it a moment.
“To be honest, the most he showed was when the surgeon stopped it. I really don’t think he was expecting that. He looked relieved. Not sorry that it happened, I didn’t see that, But I did see him brighten quite a bit when it was stopped.”
“I didn’t know, I was avoiding his eye, I had no idea.” David said quietly.
He wandered off, going back to pacing on the quarter-deck…. alone.
When David finally made a decision, he went to find Jeremy.
“I’d like you to do something for me.” He started. “Please, as his page, tell His Lordship that David would be grateful for an opportunity to meet with him… in private.”
“Certainly, but are you sure? You’ve said more than once that you wished you were an orphan, like me... If your father was King, that would be treason!”
Small boys gather nuggets like that, they wait years to find a chance to drop them into conversation.
David thought about the good-sense that lay in what Jeremy had just said.
“I certainly don’t have his death in mind, I never did, far from it! Actually, so that you know, I think I’ve been more in the wrong than he ever was. It took a long conversation with John to realise it. But don’t mention any of that, don’t add anything to my request. Please… just ask him for a private meeting.”
Jeremy came back in an hour.
“His Lordship invites you to see him at midday in his stateroom. He would be pleased if you were able to take lunch with him.”
“Thank you, please inform him that I most gratefully accept his invitation to lunch.”
Jeremy returned, looking amused.
“He seems rather pleased, and… I’m particularly forbidden to eavesdrop behind the panelling. He cracked a joke… he said that the gunner’s daughter is to be left in peace today.” He smiled. “Then he laughed… I haven’t seen him look that happy in weeks… Good Luck, I do hope it goes well!”
David presented himself at the stateroom at precisely midday.
“Good-day young man, come in, what can I do for you?”
“Permission to speak? Sir!”
“Granted. But… Do you wish to speak with your admiral? or with your father?”
“With my father, if you please Sir.”
“Well now! I would very much welcome a visit from my son! It’s a long time since we spoke as father and son. In fact it’s a while since we spoke at all.”
“Yes Sir. I’ve been thinking about that. Being on board has been great fun. But… It has rather cut me adrift. I have a commanding officer, four or five levels more senior than I, but… I miss having a father, Sir.”
“For goodness sake Davy, when we are just us together, do call me Father. Maybe you are too old for Daddy, but you are certainly too young to call me Sir. No wonder we are at cross-purposes, my boy.”
“Oh, and…” He counted on his fingers. “I make it nine levels of seniority separate us. So, if we are to be father and son again, we shall have to find a way to get around our ranks.”
“Now then, what has all this thinking led you to? Apart from loading all the blame on yourself.”
David explained how he hadn’t noticed how big a change of responsibility had crashed down on him the day he climbed aboard. For that matter a responsibility that was so much greater because he was the Admiral’s son.
“As your son, I had the run of the ship, everybody went out of their way to be nice to me. It never occurred to me how many liberties I was taking in your name… as your son.”
“The pity was..” His father sighed. “I was too busy retrieving the King to pay you the attention you needed. I was too busy to take the time to clip your ear, when I should have, before it all got out of hand.”
“Yes Father, a clipped ear would have recovered slightly faster.” David patted his bottom and smiled ruefully.
“I’m not going to check your wounds, but… are you fully recovered?”
“Yes Father, quite recovered, not as smooth as before, but healed and pain-free.”
He was rather enjoying calling the Admiral… Father. It suddenly felt right, more than right.
Then, something occurred to him…
“Does this make sense? Father” He went on to repeat what John had said about bar-mitzvahs.
“Well, I don’t know who you have been talking to… and I shan’t ask… But, whoever he was, he has a wise head on his shoulders. I don’t know much about Jews but what you say is exactly right. You needed to become a man the moment you came on board… I forgot to explain that at the time, and then I was too busy to stop and clip your ear later.”
By this stage his voice had become a bit gruff.
“I wish I had. Anything would have been better than having to stand there and watch what happened. No father should have to see that.” His eyes were full of tears.
“It wasn’t as if I was that angry at you… I was angry at the master’s-mate, maybe that clouded my mind.” He was thoughtful. “By the time I realised what had been said, it was already too late to take you into my cabin and give you a good spanking. The orders had already been given. A Naval punishment was in hand and there was nothing I could do to stop it without showing you up… leniency, favouritism… the Admiral’s soft son.”
“Once I’d failed to act as a father, for your own good I could only act as an Admiral. I just prayed that the Captain would be sensible and not try to make an example of you. I must admit to a bit of a sigh of relief when I saw what he had organised. I knew you would be alright, that you were tough enough to survive it. But, I didn’t know how it would affect you. Whether you would hate me for not stopping it… whether you would understand why stopping it would be worse than letting it continue.”
It had been a long explanation. It was important to him that David understood, but it wasn’t what father and son really needed.
He pulled himself together, and walked around the great table. He opened his arms.
David, who had been standing in the middle of the rug, rushed to him.
Father and son hugged for the first time in nearly two years.
When they had calmed down, Montagu led his son to a bench seat against the bulkhead, the only place in the state-room where they could sit side by side, his arm around his son, around David.
“Now then, there are a few things I need to say.” He started.
‘Oh dear, now I’m in for it!’ David thought.
“The first is how proud of you I am. You can have no idea how proud I was… that you stepped forward and took the blame off Saucy’s poor old shoulders. If you had stood back, he would certainly have got a flogging. At his age the cat-o’nine-tails might well have killed him. I know you thought the risk was hanging, but a flogging could have killed him just as effectively… and a lot more painfully. You saved that poor old man, and I’m very grateful to you for that.”
“You took a huge risk in saving him. You can have had no idea what would happen to you next…” That was when David gulped and said “I thought I was going to hang… I was absolutely terrified.”
“Thank God that Pepys was quick on his feet then!”
“Yes! When he said there was no question of it… I couldn’t believe it.”
“The master’s mate was a fool… He was my man but I replaced him that day! Sent him ashore, by God!”
“I didn’t know. I thought you didn’t care… I’m so sorry.” David whispered.
“Of course I cared… But, you’d backed me into a corner. Once I hadn’t punished you as a father, I couldn’t save you from sensible punishment as a naval officer… The crew would never have respected you… the Admiral’s pansy son.” All I could do was tell the Captain to use some common-sense… and then trust that he did, and that you could cope with whatever he doled out.”
“I’ve no real idea… was he? What he sentenced… was that common-sense? Was it what you intended?”
“You have no idea how bad it could have been with another Captain!” His father said darkly.
“Well, the surgeon saved me from the worst of it.”
“Actually… I think that was the bo’sun.”
“But he was…”
“We all saw that your knees were buckling, I believe the bo’sun realised that one more, one really heavy stroke would put you spark out… and that would stop it.”
“That last one really was what I thought it was then?”
“Yes, that was a massive stroke. Twenty of those could have maimed you for life. He knew what he was doing and timed it absolutely right.”
“No wonder the men were nice about it. I thought he’d taken it easy and that the surgeon then stopped it because he’d been told to.”
“No, you took a man-sized beating, and you took it like a man. That was what the bosun aimed for and I’m told that was what he told the men he had done. I think he went easy… by not going easy on you. He’s been flogging men for years. He knew exactly what you needed as punishment, and he knew how to leave you able to carry on with your career afterwards. Actually I think the Captain, the Master and the bosun had plotted together, to bring you through it, soundly and cruelly beaten, but in one piece!”
“My God, I was lucky then!”
“You would have been luckier if you’d had an attentive father, who’d stopped you getting into a mess in the first place.”
Then he hugged his son, and cuddled him for the first time in years, cuddled the small figure in a blue and gold naval uniform, until the boy’s sobbing ceased.
“Should I thank them?” David then asked.
“I don’t think so. They did what they did for the Navy as much as for you, and it worked. They would like you to become a successful officer, That’s what would thank them best.”
“I have thanked the Marine… He’s become a good friend.”
“That’s quite different. The Marine astonished me. I’ve never seen the like of that. He couldn’t have been gentler if you had been his own son. No, that did astonish me. He seemed to be willing you to do the right thing.” There was emotion in his voice.
“Then, when you spoke to him afterwards, that was absolutely the right thing to do. You were out on your feet… and yet, you still did absolutely the right thing. You even remembered to tell him to stand-easy!”
“I was so very proud of you!” He concluded.
“At that moment, I thought you were ashamed of me… that I’d brought shame on you. I was so sorry to have let you down, to have embarrassed your command.”
“Oh my boy! Ashamed? You have no idea how proud I am of you. How proud of you I was that afternoon!” There was a bit of a pause while he recovered himself a bit. This was not an afternoon of English stiff-upper-lip, his upper-lip was too shaky for that.
“Then at Scheveningen, you can’t begin to imagine how proud I was when the King presented you and young Pepys with those letters? By the way, what did the letter say apart from thank you? The King glared at me when he handed yours to you!”
“It instructed the Captains we serve to treat us kindly!” David said with a grin, his spirits soaring. “ ‘gently, as befits their station’ were his exact words. I believe.”
Then he burst out laughing… laughing at the huge gap between the King’s wishes and the reality of life for a boy-officer in His Majesty’s Navy.
He laughed until he cried, and then he cried until he had nothing left.
His father held him, for as long as he needed. Then he held him while he slept. The boy was exhausted.
Samuel had been sitting outside, and noticed when the murmur of voices ceased, and was replaced with a long silence. He rose, knocked gently and stuck his head in, raising his eyebrows in question. Lord Montagu smiled back, and one eyelid drooped.
The family-Montagu was, at last, having a better day.
Samuel smiled in relief, and withdrew, to sit once more in the outer cabin, ensuring privacy for a father and son that had been in desperate need of it.