Now, the Master of the SS Odiham Castle, Gerald Bryson, he knew some of the story. It was apparently his habit to get to know his officers over a convivial glass or two. It was a habit that seemed to serve him well, for his was the most content crew I ever served with. Observing him, he seemed to know something about everybody, even down to the lowliest deck hand. Anyway, it was late February, 1880, shortly after I joined the crew as Chief Purser. It was my first voyage, and our first night at sea, out of Harwich, bound for Bremerhaven. I had shared a bottle of rum with a few of my fellow officers, but, by and by, they all drifted off to their bunks, leaving me alone with the captain…
“So, Nathaniel, I must compliment you on the quality of the supplies,” he said, smiling at me over the remains of his glass of rum. “My last purser always bought whatever was on special offer, and frankly, sometimes, I wouldn’t strip paint with the stuff.” I grinned at him.
“Well, I always like to balance quality against price,” I said, picking up what was left of the bottle, “and I have sufficient contacts now, that I can get reasonable stuff without paying over the top. This isn’t the best I can get, but I didn’t want to break the budget on my first trip.”
“Heaven forfend!” said the captain with a grin, “According to my sources, that seems very unlikely.”
“Sources?” I asked, idly twirling my glass.
“Well, everything I heard from the captains of the Raglan Castle and Carisbrooke Castle was highly positive,” he said, “As was the report from the London office, the Southampton office and, indeed, your college tutor.” I raised an eyebrow.
“You’re very thorough,” I answered. “I’ve heard that about you. I can do research too,” I grinned at him.
“Touché,” he laughed, clinking his glass against mine. “I try to be. But, that’s just the career stuff. Tell me about Nathaniel the person.” I chuckled.
“Well, if we’re talking about that sort of thing,” I said, “I think we need something a little better to accompany it. Do excuse me for a moment.” I got up and made a brief visit to my cabin, returning with a bottle of what I liked to call my special reserve. I returned to the wardroom and procured a couple of clean glasses. I sat down and poured us both a generous measure. I raised my glass in a toast and sat back. His reaction was everything I had come to expect, the rapid blinking and raising of the eyebrows when he sniffed it, and the scrunched up face followed by a low whistle when he tasted it. “A friend of mine works the import control desk for the Gulf & Caribbean Line.” I explained. “We do each other… favours… now and again.” He nodded and took another appreciative sip.
“A friend who should be cultivated, I’d say,” he said. “So, tell me about yourself, your family etc.” I took a swig from my glass and set it down.
“Well, let’s see. My family is from Chatham in Kent. My father, William, owns a construction company, and my mother, Ida, spends half her time on her social obligations, the other half raising money or awareness for one or other good causes.” The captain looked up.
“Ballard, as in Ballard Construction?” he asked. “Did a lot of the extension work at Rochester?”
“Yes, that’s us,” I replied. “Not that I have much to do with the family business, save that I now do the accounts for them. I was never very close to my father anyway, as he was always working, and when he found that I had no interest in the construction business, he pretty much left me to my own devices. I was much closer to my mother. She had a huge library of books that came from her side of the family and she was forever adding to it. Father would often joke that he might have to extend the house, just for her books. Not that he ever looked much at any books that weren’t technical manuals and treatises on architecture.”
“And you take after her?” asked the captain. “I saw some of the stuff you were loading into your cabin.” I laughed, taking my pipe and tobacco pouch out. The captain glanced at it and did the same. After a few moments, we were both lit up and puffing away.
“You could say that. I was a fairly advanced reader before I even went to school. Mother would read stories to me and I would pester her to teach me pretty much as soon as I realised the stories were there in those little black marks. Of course, Mother being Mother, I learned my letters and words from the likes of Malory, Spenser, Tennyson and such like. She was a great one for the Arthurian stories.” I paused to sip from my glass. “Of course, one problem with Spenser was that I had to relearn a lot of my spelling once I did start school. “ The captain nodded.
“Not so much wrong as archaic?” he asked. I nodded.
“Indeed. On the other hand, reading all those romances meant that my manners, at school and at home, were impeccable. That was one of the first things my class teacher remarked upon. It mad me a great hit with my mother’s friends too. My head was full of chivalry and such like, so I was always opening doors, offering my seat and such like. And there was one embarrassing episode, when, at all of ten years old, I stood there declaiming courtly love to the daughter of one of Mother’s friends. I think she was about seventeen at the time. She was very gracious about it, though and we are still friends.” I gave a wry smile as the captain roared with laughter.
“I had heard that you were a great hit with the ladies,” he said, gesturing towards the bottle with his empty glass. I refilled it for him. “And,” he added with a conspiratorial smile, “some of the less ladylike members of the fairer sex.” I grimaced.
“Not so much these days,” I said. “I was quite withdrawn and studious at university, before I started with Haskins. However, on my first voyage, going out to Rotterdam on the Carisbrooke, I let some of the crew take me out to show me the sights. It was a night of wild drinking and bawdy houses.” I shrugged. “I was a young man, unattached, out in a foreign city for the first time, and it became a bit of a habit. I’ve slowed up a bit since, but it is still a bit of a ritual, the first time I go to any port that is new to me. Eddie and some of his friends have promised to show me around Bremerhaven when we get there.”
“Oh, I am sure they will. Make sure they take you to the Blumengarten,” said the captain, “It’s one of the classier establishments in the city…” he paused and winked, “Or so I am told. I wouldn’t know, of course.” I raised my glass and thanked him. “But,” he continued, “are you still young and carefree, or has somebody finally tied you down?” I shook my head.
“Not yet. Well, maybe, sort of.” I smiled, fondly. “Her name is Alexandra. We’ve known each other since we were children. Her family are friends with my mother’s side of the family. Actually, she’s loosely related to the Haskins family who own our shipping company, but I’m pretty sure that didn’t help when I was applying for a job. We have an informal agreement, pending me plucking up enough courage to approach her old man, Major Fergus O’Connor, retired. He’s a bit of a firebrand and probably not at all keen on me not being a Catholic. I’m rather hoping, in fact, that this new position will be sufficiently respectable, and of sufficient remuneration, that he might relent. I’m planning to ask the old coot once I’ve got a couple of trips under my belt.”
“Good luck with that,” said the captain, toasting me. I responded in kind.
“Thanks, I’ll need it. Of course, I will have some help,” I said, “in the form of a bottle of very special Hors d’âge Cognac that I’ve been saving for the occasion. That and some decent port that I planning on bringing out after dinner.” The captain laughed.
“It’s good to have a plan,” he said. “Do you think you can persuade him? I nodded.
“I think I have a good chance. If nothing else, it might put his mind at ease about other things?”
“Well, Alexandra has always been so busy with her various ‘good causes’, just like her mother, and mine. She is very vocal about women’s rights, being able to earn money in their own right and so on, which pleased my mother no end, since she felt the same way. They even talk of women getting the vote some day.”
“Really?” he asked. “How did that go down with your father?”
“He was quite supportive,” I said. “He was always quite willing to discuss the business with her and ask her advice in things. He probably wouldn’t admit to it down at his club, but he did listen. As to the Major, he was a bit torn. On the one hand, he was pleased that Alexandra had views and was willing to stand up for them, on the other, he worried that she would spend all her time doing that sort of thing and never have time for womanly things. So, in some senses, the prospect of her getting married might come as a great relief.” He nodded, tamping out his pipe in an ashtray.
“And how do you feel about it?” he asked.
“I’m all in favour. I like women to be forthright and strong. I grew up around them. None of Mother’s friends were fainting blossoms by any means, so that’s what I am used to. Of course, I went to a few balls and things and met other women, but I never really had time for the pliant sort who were just in search of a husband to take care of them. Much to the annoyance of certain mothers who seemed to regard me as a bit of catch.” I put the pipe down for a moment and refilled our glasses, then refilled the pipe but didn’t light it. The captain smiled at me.
“Well, a fainting blossom isn’t of much use to such as us two, eh?” he said. “It takes a strong woman to deal with her husband being away at sea so much. So, when do you plan on asking this Major of yours?” I glanced over at a calendar on the wall.
“Well, I have shore leave at the end of March, which ties in quite nicely with a big dinner for Alexandra’s mother’s birthday. That seems as good a time as any.” The captain nodded and pushed his chair back, making ready to rise as he finished off his drink.
“Well, I wish you the best of luck,” he said, standing. “And now, I think it’s bunk time. Thank you for this chat.” I stood too, putting the cork into the bottle and dropping it into my jacket pocket. “Goodnight, Nathaniel.”
“Goodnight captain,” I said. “I’ll just take my pipe topside and smoke it, and then I’ll be away to my bunk too.” He nodded and departed. A few moments later, I was on deck, staring out into the dark of the night-time sea. I considered the conversation and felt content. This was going to be a good place to be. A good berth on a good ship, and a senior position with salary to match. Even the Major couldn’t argue with that…