A Royal Achievement
It was some six months after David and his father were reconciled, and John the Marine was again on the quarterdeck, chatting quietly to David.
John was standing at ease but alert, guarding the quarterdeck. David was assisting the Officer of the Watch, alternately walking to the port and starboard rails to gaze out to sea, looking for pirates operating out from the Barbary Coast. They would be hoping to pick off solitary ships, headed for the Straits and the Atlantic. Ships whose owners or captains were unwilling to lose time by waiting to be escorted as a convoy.
David was alert and so was John, but that didn’t prevent the two of them from chatting. The Officer of the Watch was aware of their interaction, but so long as David concentrated on his task then he approved. Anything that created good relations between the Marines and the ship’s officers had to be a good thing. But, he did keep a quiet eye on his young subordinate. Since that most regrettable incident it never needed more than a quiet word to bring David into line. He was going to make a good officer. He was now well on his way, old enough to accept serious responsibility as a junior officer.
That made him think of Jeremy, still young enough to be a bit of a handful, but a handful that had been a close witness to what happens when youthful playfulness gets out of hand. He might be playful, but he had never seen the boy do anything wilfully unwise. It was David that received the lesson, but Jeremy had learnt from it too.
John was still worrying about David. He knew that the boy still dreamed the same dream.
What worried John was that the dream no longer worried David.
“It lasted ages last night. I thought it was never going to make an end. I was absolutely exhausted by the time it sent me over the top.”
“You enjoyed it again?”
“Oh yes, and I felt so wonderfully empty afterwards! Totally relaxed. I slept like a log. If we could bottle it we could make a fortune.” He smiled.
John worried that David now enjoyed dreaming of a beating that went on and on, until his body could stand no more and ended it by sweeping him away on a wave of overwhelming pleasure. It wasn’t to his mind an appropriate way for a boy to pleasure himself.
“What makes it enjoyable?… I might have expected it to be the last thing you’d want to relive. Is it me holding your hands? Or Jeremy and your father watching you… knowing that people are loving you?”
“It’s all of those things. It’s having so many people in the cabin who are actually on my side. That everyone, even the bosun is doing their best… for me!”
“But, the pain… what about the pain?”
“Oh that’s easy. The pain is the price I pay for their love, their efforts… for them being there for me, at that moment.”
David thought for a minute searching for a way to explain his obsession…
“When the men get a tattoo with their girl’s name… why do they do that? Most of them can’t even read it!”
“Love makes men do strange things!” John replied, thinking of the heart with Mary on his right bicep, and the riband with Mother on his left. He had been young and skinny… and they had hurt!
“But, tattooing hurts, I’m told its terribly painful!”
“Yes, it is! But, it’s how the men can show how much they yearn for their loved-ones… Oh, I see what you’re getting at, you mean that the pain in your dream is how you are showing the watchers how much you love them?”
“Exactly, and how much I love them for being there while it happens, because I know that watching pains them too.”
John was far from reassured, if anything he was now even more worried than he had been before.
A dream is one thing, but this self-imposed violence and pain seemed to be how David now thought of love. He was wise enough in the ways of men to know that this wasn’t normal for a fifteen year old boy.
But, what if anything, could he do about it?
He couldn’t tell the boy’s father… it wasn’t a conversation that a Marine could have with an Admiral, and if he did… David would never trust him again, and that was too great a price for either of them to pay.
“Doesn’t Jeremy or young Ezra sort it out for you… in the crows nest?”
“Oh that’s quite different, that’s just fun, it’s how we… play. My dreams are more… romantic… spiritual. It’s like those paintings of martyred-saints in ecstasy, pierced with arrows or broken on the wheel, but ecstatic!”
Now John was really worried… romantic? spiritual? ecstatic? and martyred saints!
‘Good God above! Where was the boy’s mind?’
But what to do about it. Clearly there was an excess of black choler in the boy’s blood. What if the surgeon bled him? Would that be the solution?
The next words from David brought the answer to him…
“Did you hear? We’re going to visit Valetta. That small frigate yesterday brought news. The King’s brother is visiting Malta, and we are to show the flag. The King has sent him to reassure the Maltese. He wants to show them that the Navy is out here to keep the Barbary pirates away.”
He was obviously very excited.
“The Admiral has ordered that the ships be dressed overall. We’re to have lots of flags and bunting, all the stuff left over from Scheveningen. Oh yes, and the hands are to man the yardarms as we enter harbour. We’re to fire three broadsides, and the most spectacular salute. We shall fire a gun every two seconds; twice round the ship is nearly five minutes of continuous gunfire. The Maltese really are going to be shown who is in charge.”
John had been thinking while David enthused…
“Well, if we get a run ashore, you stick with me. I know Valetta like the back of my hand. I’ve spent weeks there, while we waited for a fair wind to take us through the Straits.”
David and Jeremy were ecstatic. They were to be the centrepiece of the dressing-overall. They were practising, to get it absolutely perfect. It was quite dangerous, and would require care in a rough sea.
They had asked the Admiral, and he said “Ask the Captain”. The Captain said that he didn’t mind, but they must ask the Master. The Master was asked and he gave them permission, provided they stayed well out of the way. Actually he was quite amused by the idea. But, he did check that they had thought about how to do it safely.
Their special treat was to be permitted to enter Valetta while standing in the crows nest, the Admiral’s flag flying above them.
The excitement was that they were to be the high point of the dressing overall. While the men manned the yards, our young heroes were to be even higher, standing to attention and at the salute, one facing port and the other starboard, at the very top of the mainmast.
In cocked hats, gold-frogged blue coats, they would add a final touch to the manning-the-yards.
The officers were to be standing at attention along the quarterdeck rail. The warrant-officers and waisters would be standing along the rail of the maindeck, and all the able-seamen and topmen were to be out along the yard-arms wearing their whitest shirts.
The ships of the fleet would enter harbour in line-astern. It would take quite a while for them to enter the harbour, firing salutes and broadsides as they came. Valetta was in for a treat… and a lot of smoke.
Strictly, the boys should have been on the quarterdeck with the other officers, but their argument had been that the quarterdeck rail was tall and they were not. Standing on a pair of upturned buckets in the crows-nest in their best blue and gold uniforms with black and gold cocked-hats, they would be much more of a decoration than if hidden behind the rail. All that would be hidden, with large enough buckets… were their feet.
They would be quite a sight, provided they didn’t fall out of the nest!”
The entry to Valetta harbour was just as exciting as the boys hoped. They stood straight as ram-rods, high on the mainmast, as the guns roared and the flags waved. Valetta’s guns replied, showing that the port itself was not totally defenceless.
The boys had devised a way of standing so that they were secure. They each had a sturdy leather belt around their frock-coat, and Jeremy held David’s belt with his left hand while saluting with his right. David did the same with Jeremy’s belt and sandwiching the mast between them their arms on opposite sides of the mast they were reasonably braced. They saluted for the thirty minutes that it took the ship to come to anchor, and only relaxed when the bosun whistled for the crew to stand-down.
As Ezra later remarked… It was probably the most exciting afternoon the two young lads had ever had with all their clothes on.
David took up John’s offer to show him Valetta. He knew that the Marine, his Marine, had more than a simple run ashore in mind, but all that John had divulged was that he had it in mind to provide David with a cure for his insomnia.
Now that the moment had come however, John was nervous, he and David were in the jolly-boat on their way ashore. John knew where he was taking David, but the latter only knew that it was a place where the Marine was well-known and would be welcome.
Our young hero was quite relaxed about it, he thought that it would be fun to meet John’s friends, especially as John had said that it was somewhere he always returned from a great deal more relaxed than when he went. That was the sort of coded expression the men used when discussing sex with Young-Gentlemen.
He assumed that sex was on his Marine’s mind, but what sort? David had no idea, and was perfectly happy to wait to find out, he trusted John. Nothing could go wrong as long as he stuck with him.
John did know what faced David… and that was why he was nervous.
The house was at the edge of town, a quiet street. When John knocked discreetly, the door opened no more than was needed to allow them to enter.
The proprietor greeted John as a long lost friend, clapping him on the back and thrusting mugs of ale at them. He was introduced to David, who was standing as tall as he could manage.
“What a fine young man!” The proprietor said.
“A fine Young-Gentleman!” John corrected him.
“An officer eh? Excellent, you’re introducing him to Naval discipline?”
John smiled. “He’s already had enough experience of that, but from the other end. He took it well too, like a man. I was so impressed that I thought he might be shown the range of experiences that your fine establishment offers men, by way of recreation… and release.”
“Come along down then, bring your ale with you.”
He led them to some stairs that led down into an enormous cellar that had once held large tuns of wine.
“It’s useful, this cellar. It stops the noise, we need to keep the screams from upsetting the neighbourhood.”
‘Noise, screams?’ Thought young David. ‘What am I getting myself involved in?’
The cellar already held about twenty men, ranging from quite young local lads of David’s age, to older men, mostly sailors and also some elderly gentlemen of an academic appearance. For some reason, academics generally seem to have longer hair than their less studious friends, maybe it’s to keep their brains warm.
One or two shouted to John in greeting.
“Is your young friend here for your entertainment, or his?” One shouted.
“Greetings bosun… His, definitely his! He met our ship’s bosun last year, and he introduced him to the gunner’s daughter. I’m not sure he’s ready for another bosun just yet!”
“Come to get his own back on the lower decks then is he?”
“Only if that’s what he wants.”
John turned to David, and took him gently by the arm… “Come along, we need to have a chat before the evening’s entertainment starts. Let’s take our drinks back upstairs, it’s quieter up there.”
He led the way back up, to a quiet balcony that overlooked the sea.
John became serious. “This is by way of an introduction to a part of the men’s world that you wouldn’t normally meet… for another twenty or thirty years, if ever.”
He paused to take a long quaff of his ale. “Drink up lad it’s an evening best not experienced sober. You need to be loosened up a bit”
David dutifully drank half his tankard.
“Now then, the first thing to say is that the men downstairs are all men that I trust. Some of them I know well and some I trust because the proprietor trusts them, and I trust him.”
‘Trust? an evening that needs trust?’ David was becoming more unnerved by the minute, but curious… yes, definitely curious.
“Nothing will happen this evening that you don’t want and welcome. If you don’t want to partake in anything, just say so. No-one will think less of you. But if you are right about your dreams and what excites you, then this is the best and safest place to start.”
“Well, that’s all very well, and I trust you… but I have no idea what you are talking about.” David was clearly puzzled as to where the evening was going.
“The thing is, most of us who go to sea are trying to get away from something. It’s a hard life below decks. Above decks, the officers, there we have a completely different type of man; wealthy, educated, often educated away from their family. What the two lots of men may have in common, what they often share is…”
He paused. This was where it could all go terribly wrong.
“What they share is that in their past, in their boyhood, they have all had severe beatings… just like you.”
David’s head snapped up… “Beatings, like mine?”
“Yes, exactly like yours.”
“Officers may have had strict fathers and tutors; they may have been away at school and some of the best schools have whipping-posts. The lower decks will have had violent drunken fathers and hard apprentice-masters that they were glad to get away from.”
“The thing is… They may have run away from the beatings, but the beatings will still be a part of their life that they look back on. Despite the beatings, their father or school-master may have been someone that they loved very much. A man may remember those beatings as proof of his father’s love for him.”
“Well, that still doesn’t explain my dreams.” David commented. He thought he saw part of what John was telling him.
“No, it doesn’t.”
“I can understand him loving his father but what about the boys beaten at school, away from home?” David was curious, he had a feeling that all this did have something to do with his dreams, but he really wasn’t sure how.
“I believe that many boys actually love their teachers. They truly believe that their schoolmasters have had their best interest at heart. Others may have been in love with a schoolmate who took a beating for them, maybe they were weak or shy and a friend claimed the blame, to protect them. Like you did for Saucy.”
David reacted badly to that…
“Absolutely not like I did for Saucy! Saucy had done nothing wrong, the fault was entirely mine!” He paused and took a deep breath, he hadn’t finished. “Remember, Saucy was badly injured, and that was all my fault. I truly deserved the blame… and the punishment, the punishment could and probably should have been a great deal worse. I got off lightly!”
“Nevertheless, ninety-nine out of a hundred boys would have accepted the opportunity to shift the blame below decks. No officer would have taken the slightest notice of protestations of innocence from a below-decks hand.”
“That is so wrong! My father’s son couldn’t do a thing like that! I’d have hanged first!”
“I do believe you would… for love of poor old Saucy?”
“No! For love of honesty, truth… Father’s respect… for love of my honour!”
“And for love of an elderly man, that you are genuinely fond of.”
“Is that why all those men are down there, waiting? Do all the men downstairs want to be beaten tonight?” David’s curiosity now knew no bounds.
“Well who will do the beating? Or do they help each other?”
“Some are here to do the beating, perhaps they admired their father or teacher… and are trying to emulate them. Others will simply help a friend, in the expectation that the friend will then help them. Whichever their role, almost all of them are here seeking release from some demon… like your dreams.”
“Gracious me… it’s a strange world.”
John thought there had been enough explanation. If his plan was to work, a somewhat more hands-on experience was needed.
“Let’s go and see how they are getting on.”
He led the way to the stairs, holding David’s hand as they went.
The mass of men had separated into small groups, many just two men, a few with men watching. In each pair one man was flogging the other, some with a switch, some a cane. A boy, about David’s age was using a boy’s-pussy on a heavily set man.
The proprietor came to sit beside David.
He could see that David was already aroused by the sight of the boy.
“That lad’s been badly beaten a number of times on one of the tougher ships.” The proprietor explained.
“In that case I can understand how he feels, but why is the man allowing him…”
“Ah, that one’s interesting. He’s risen to be bosun, but part of the bosun’s duty… a part that he hates is the flogging. So he comes here to make amends.”
“Making amends to the men he has flogged?”
“No, to himself, for having no way to avoid doing it. Like a flagellant on Good Friday, he comes here to atone for what he has had to do. The men he beats on board must never know that he hates it. Even I have no idea what his real name is, or the ship he is from. He comes here every few months.”
“Good gracious… a reluctant bosun!”
John said quietly…
“Not so strange! Haven’t you met a reluctant bosun yourself… and an even more reluctant Marine?” John said very quietly, almost a whisper. David wasn’t totally certain that the whisper hadn’t been only in his head.
“Good God! You felt that? Oh, I am so sorry!”
David was appalled at how much his carelessness had cost John, how the memory must hurt his friend.
“David, you really must stop trying to take all the blame. I was glad to be there. I was reluctant to see you hurt, but glad to be able to hold your hands and look in your eyes as it was happening. I felt blessed.”
By this time David was silently crying, he hugged the burly marine.
“Father said that your gentleness was astonishing, that he had never seen anything like it. He said that you couldn’t have been gentler if it had been your own son.”
“My son is dead! I was off on a ship when Crumbwell was leaving us unpaid. My family was starving so Stephen stole to feed them…”
“They hanged him for it!”
“How old was he?” David could hardly speak, his throat hurt.
“Your age, exactly your age.”
“Your father was quite right, at that moment in his stateroom I felt that I was with my son. I was gentle because I have always hoped that there was someone gentle with Stephen when…” John was crying. “but, I don’t imagine there was!”
“Is that why you come here?”
“Partly, it helps to calm me. Probably, one day I shall kill that shopkeeper, I know his name… but until then… I come here. I like to think that I come because there are sad men here who need a hand, and I can help them through it, like I helped you.”
“By beating them?” David was appalled, and couldn’t hide it.
“They can’t beat themselves. It helps me get it out of my system, and I beat them carefully, to give them what they want without injury, and without marks that they don’t want seen. I don’t do it for my own pleasure, more as a penance.”
“He’s well nigh a fuckin’ saint!” The proprietor said with a grin.
David smiled weakly and the proprietor laughed.
“Come on, lets go and see what’s up.”
John walked up to where two older seamen were beating each other, a bit half-heartedly with a thick leather belt. They broke off what they were doing when they saw John and his young companion watching.
“Hello John, You’re a welcome sight!”
“You two are never going to get anywhere at that rate!” John said.
“Yes, you’re right. Got time to give us a hand?” The older of the two was hopeful.
John turned to David… “Do you mind if I give this man what he needs/”
David, smiled and gestured for him to go ahead. He had been feeling sorry for them. They were obviously unable to get any weight behind their blows.
John took the strap. “Does it matter where?”
“My backs best, at least I can sit then!” The man was clearly delighted.
John took careful aim. The leather made a sharp noise.
The man actually grinned, first he grimaced but then he grinned.
“Thanks, lay it on!”
The man’s friend turned to David… “Would you?, could you? Do it for me… please.”
David was unable to say no. He took the strap from him and turned his mind off.
“Where?” He asked.
“My arse, please.”
David took aim and swung.
The noise shocked him.
“Oh, yes, yes!” the man gasped.
“I’m sorry!” David cried.
“No, no, that was perfect, again please again, don’t stop. I’ll tell you.”
David hit him again, and again. He built up a rhythm and the blows got harder.
His mind was elsewhere, in a stateroom. He was in a trance.
Then he felt a hand grab his arm.
“Stop now! He just said ‘enough’ !”
It was the proprietor, he’d been keeping an eye on things.
The old man’s bottom was a mass of red wheals, there was blood seeping where a few of the lines crossed.
“Oh my God. What have I been doing?” David backed away, his face a mask of horror. He slumped to the floor, and curled up sobbing his heart out.
John crouched down beside him, stroking his back gently.
“Don’t worry about it. What you’ve been doing is making an old man feel young again.” John said gently to the heartbroken boy. “Doesn’t that make you feel good?”
He went on, as if offering a reasonable alternative…
“Would you feel better if you let one of these men give you a sound thrashing?”
David moaned and shook his head, No!
“Not even this old man? He probably couldn’t really hurt you.”
“I even brought this for you to use…”John produced the two feet of two and a half inch rope that had ruined the smooth whiteness of David’s arse, had turned it into a furrowed and bloody mess. There was still his own blood on it.
“Come on, let him have his fun, you know you’ll enjoy it.”
He added layer on layer to the boy’s grief…
“Go on, you know it’ll be a huge come when you get there. Honestly it will!”
David rolled away from him…
“Don’t… it’s monstrous. Why would anyone want me to do that…”
“What pleasure can he get from such pain?” He looked at John questioningly…
Then his mood changed, he didn’t want to be there, he didn’t understand why he was there, or why he was beating a defenceless old man…
“Why are we here, why have you got me doing this?” He looked furious, cheated.
“We were going to have fun… this isn’t fun!… This is just nasty!”
Then… David’s face cleared of its anger…
“This isn’t a mistake, is it? You brought me here on purpose! You knew!”
“Yes, I knew. When you dream tonight, do you think you’ll still want to have your father and Jeremy watching you suffer?”
David shook his head… “No, that was…! Why did I dream that… why?”
“When you slept, your head was free to try to make sense of it all. You were trying to add love to it, to turn what happened into something worthwhile.”
“Wasn’t it worthwhile? None of it? … I deserved to be punished!”
“Yes, it was worthwhile… In exactly the way the Navy intended… It allowed you to show genuine courage. It allowed men who loved you to show care in what they had to do. It allowed the crew to respect you afterwards.”
“And… now it’s taught you something you needed to know about yourself.”
Then he bent down, picked David up and carried him up the stairs and out of sight of the other men. To a man they had stopped their evening’s entertainment while a fifteen year old boy came to recognise that he wasn’t destined to follow their path in life.
They respected his decision, and most wished that they had been able to do the same.
They sat quietly upstairs for a while, then David brightened, a cloud had lifted…
“We came out to have fun… I fancy getting drunk, ridiculously drunk… Make sure I get back safely and in good time. I wouldn’t want us to be absent without leave. We don’t want to put them to the trouble of disturbing the panelling again. It’s a lot of work for someone to polish that damned gun!” He belched loudly. “You know, that’s someone I never got round to apologising to… who polished the gun? I remember thinking how good it looked.” Then he burped again.
“See, I didn’t apologise that time either. Does that mean I’m growing up at last?”
John grinned, with genuine pleasure… “I think you are as grownup as you need to be… less than the Captain, but more than me!” Then he chased David up the road.
They went on to get quite ridiculously drunk. David was sick into the harbour and provided a quite over the top salute for the Marine who was guarding the top of the ladder on the side of the ship. He stood there one hand holding the ladder and the other saluting…
“One hand for me and one for the Navy!”
John and a grinning Marine grabbed him by the collar as he waved the hand that was for him.
“I’ll pour him into his quarters!” John assured the other Marine.
“Officer’s have such small capacity!”
“It’s bigger than you think!” David assured him seriously.
“I meant your capacity for drinking… Sir.” The Marine replied.
“That too.” David said, smiled and hiccupped.
“I’d better get him stowed away.” John said and guided his charge towards the Admiral’s quarters, to the space among the guns behind the panelling, to his place alongside the gunner’s-daughter.
It’s difficult to get a drunk fifteen year old into a hammock, in a small space.
The noise attracted the attention of Admiral Lord Montagu, or “Father!” as he was greeted by his very drunk son!
Far from being upset or angry, Montagu was delighted to see David so happy.
“Ah, David, I see you have a Royal Marine escort, to put you to bed!”
“Not just any Royal Marine, Father.”
“No, indeed.” He turned to John. “Marine, I trust you to keep this young reprobate safe.”
“Yes-sir! Absolutely Sir!”
“That isn’t what I meant Marine.”
“No. I meant that I need to rely on you to look after him. He may be a Naval-officer but he is still very young, and the streets of a port can be dangerous.”
“Not, as long as he’s with me Sir!” He paused and wondered how far he could go.
“If I may say so Sir… The thing is, the crew have a very high regard for your son. We keep an eye on him. He won’t walk the streets on his own, the crew have too much concern for him. One day he’ll be a great officer. We want to see him get there safely.”
It was a long speech for a Royal Marine to make to an Admiral!
“You have a special regard for him.”
“Yes-sir. I had a son his age.”
“Yes Sir, had. Keeping an eye on the lad is no trouble… Sir!”
“Well, I’m glad for your concern for his well-being. Just keep an eye on him… as one father to another.”
“Aye-aye Sir. You can rely on me Sir.”
By this time David was fast asleep. He had more or less made it into his hammock. He was in, but so were his clothes. Meanwhile the chaos doubled as Jeremy arrived back from his own run ashore with Saucy. Not quite as drunk, he too fell into bed.
Lord Montagu looked at John, the two smiled conspiratorially, shook their heads.
“Well, they seem to be out of trouble for the day. Well done Marine.”
“Thank you Sir. After tonight, I think he’s due for a good night’s sleep.”
“You think there will be no dreams tonight?” David’s father asked.
“I hope not Sir, not tonight; maybe not tomorrow as well… I hope so anyway.”
“I don’t know what you’ve been up to, and I shan’t ask, but if you’ve pulled that off then I shall be in your debt, and so will he.”
“Thank you Sir. If I have, then I shall be mightily relieved as well.”
“Good night then Marine.”
“Good night Sir.”