A Midshipman Writes Home
We who live in these Isles owe much to our Navy for having protected us in the late years of war and international threat. Among the ranks of the Navy, we perhaps owe most to those gallant captains who have commanded our fighting ships with such bravery, steadfastness, and daring. These men have ensured our liberty, enriched our national coffers and provided us with heroes over whom many a dinner table has been set a-flutter.
One such was Captain Frederick Wentworth, who, on a May morning in 1810, brought his frigate the Laconia into Plymouth after many months away at sea. He had spent those months in the Azores and, after the capture of many fine prizes, he had some weeks ago been given orders to return to Europe and report at Gibraltar to join the fleet in the Mediterranean. Arriving there somewhat ahead of expectations, he had then been sent on to England carrying passengers and letters, and so arrived in Plymouth.
This arrival in Plymouth was welcome to his men and to himself. Its safe and smooth nature was particularly welcome to another man on board. Lieutenant James Benwick had joined the ship at Gibraltar as first officer, having himself been in the Mediterranean without home leave for four years. It was he who had command of the ship to bring her into Plymouth, and he was relieved when he heard his captain, who had stood silent against the taffrail for the last hour, say "Well done, Mr Benwick. I believe we shall be safe here. Give the order to drop anchor. I shall be below." Benwick acknowledged his Captain's order and was rewarded with a broad smile and the words: "I believe you will do very well, Mr Benwick. I am glad to have you on my ship" as Captain Wentworth passed him on his way to the companionway.
Mr Benwick was still learning to read his new captain's moods, but today it was obvious that he was in high spirits. Later that afternoon, having been ashore to deliver his charges and make his report to the port Admiral, Captain Wentworth invited his officers to dine in his cabin. In the two weeks" passage from Gibraltar, Benwick had not had much opportunity to get to know his fellow officers. The ship seemed a happy one, but his own natural diffidence and perhaps the very camaraderie and affection he sensed between the other officers were something of a barrier to his ready absorption into their company. James Benwick was a serious young man, and did not find it easy to talk lightly, or joke with other men.
His captain he found somewhat enigmatic. Captain Wentworth was well known in the Navy for the exploit which had won him promotion to post captain. Returning to England in the ship which had been given him as commander, a shabby, well loved but leaky sloop named the Asp, he had engaged and defeated a French frigate, despite being heavily outgunned and the crew being somewhat in trepidation that the Asp would not survive a moderate gale, let alone a pounding from the enemy. That crew, however, in spite of their fears, had been with him to a man. Over the preceding two years in the West Indies his skill and daring had won and sent home several prizes, the profits of which they all stood to share, and they trusted him not to let them down now with England and their money so nearly in sight. Their confidence had been rewarded and the Asp had brought the frigate in to Plymouth to the cheers of the other crews in the Sound there. Promotion for the commander soon followed and, further evidence of his being a lucky captain and one men wished to sail with, he was quickly given a post ship, the frigate Laconia, and sent out to the Western Isles.
Lieutenant Benwick was aware of this history. He was also aware of the continued success of the captain since in capturing prizes, and knew he himself stood to gain financially from this if the Mediterranean should prove as good a hunting ground as had the West Indies and the Azores. In company, as at this dinner, Captain Wentworth was articulate and gregarious. His position among them of course inclined the other men to give way to him in conversation, but Lieutenant Benwick felt that he would have led the talk naturally at any dinner table and in almost any company. And he was not overbearing. There was a lightness to his dominance of the table which allowed others to shine, indeed to shine in a way Benwick would not have guessed at from the time he had spent with them at their own table. All of this was of a piece with the man he had heard about -- daring, ruthless when necessary, a charismatic leader of men. But there were other clues to his captain. He had twice, on being shown into the captain's cabin to make some report or other, found him reading what turned out, when the captain put down the volume to attend to him, to be poetry. On one occasion it had been the very volume -- the Lyrical Ballads -- that he had himself been reading before his watch started. He had not dared to comment however, not sure whether it would be impertinent to do so, a romantic poetry reading superior being something of a novelty.
As well as the poetry, there were also times when the captain seemed to shed his gregarious nature and withdraw into silence. The routines and customs of the Navy are designed somewhat to create a distance between the captain of a ship and the men he commands. While Frederick Wentworth never breached these customs, or perhaps because he never did, he was well liked by his officers and the hands alike. Perhaps the times he stood silently on the quarterdeck, not interfering with his officers" work, staring out at the sea, were part of this necessary distance. Benwick had noticed, but not yet learned to interpret, the glances his colleagues exchanged at such times.
But now, however, Captain Wentworth was far from withdrawn and silent. As the port circulated, he addressed his first officer.
"Now, Lieutenant Benwick, I understand you are a well-read man? Indeed, I would have no need of such a report, having heard for myself your conversation this evening!"
The younger man coloured slightly but the laughter the captain's words evoked was good-natured and warm, and he soon joined in. "Excellent." The captain continued; "Well, I am without a schoolmaster until we return to Gibraltar, and I take seriously the matter of banging some learning into the youngsters" heads. I have reason to be grateful for the attention that was paid to my education by the captains under whom I served, and I have always made it my business to do the same for the young men in my command. I know that they all received letters from home when we arrived at Gibraltar, but I am certain none of them has written a reply yet." This last was said with a stern look in the direction of the two midshipmen present, one of whom went white, while the other laughed.
"While we are in port I should like to make sure they do so. I would have their parents, whom they all have and for whom they should all be grateful, know that they are safe and well and that I have not flogged them or sent them to the masthead too often." The table broke into guffaws, with suggestions as to which of the young men should have been treated in such a manner.
'some of them just need to be made to sit still long enough, but others need help with spelling and so on. The new one, Mr Musgrove, who came on board with you at Gibraltar, I do not know yet, but his last captain had left a letter which gives me cause to think he may need help in both sitting still and in the matters of spelling and grammar. Perhaps tomorrow at noon you would be so good as to see to this?"
Lieutenant Benwick readily agreed and was rewarded by his Captain's smile. 'they are, on the whole, no better or worse than any other group of young men. And most of them are grateful for help. This letter writing can take the place of the noon readings - even they would be hard pressed to mistake their latitude anchored in Plymouth Sound!"
Benwick found himself the next day in charge of the four midshipmen. The morning was blustery and wet, and so they were in the captain's cabin at the table on which dinner had been served the day before. Some time was wasted with silliness, as might be expected of four growing boys required to sit at a table and write when they wanted to be on deck watching the coming and goings in the Sound and perhaps be in the right place when the captain chose a shore crew. However, they were on the whole as their captain had described them, and they soon settled down to the task, asking Lieutenant Benwick the occasional question about spelling. When, after a quarter of an hour, the captain came into the cabin, most of them had their heads down and were scratching away.
Perhaps because of the rather tepid recommendation received from Dick Musgrove's former captain, his new captain chose to stop behind him and, seeing that the boy was getting no further with his letter than the opening address, to sit down next to him.
"Are you having difficulties, Mr Musgrove?" was met with a nod of the head.
"It's just that I can never think of anything to tell them, sir" was the reply.
"Well, there is a convention to these matters, you will find. Have you the last letter you received from home? There must be some item of news or a family concern in that, about which you can ask, or comment upon. That will do for a start."
James Benwick looked up at this point, to see the boy take out a crumpled letter and start to scan it furiously. He watched him, imagining him rejecting such pieces of news as the cherry blossom having been very fine that year, or his father's prize sow having had an excellent litter, and then seizing upon: "Ah, my brother Charles has married!". Benwick smiled to himself at the insouciance of youth, that had required reminding of such a piece of family news, and looked away. But he kept an ear open for the dialogue between the captain and the young man, eager to see what it revealed of his new commander's character and conduct.
"Excellent", came the captain's encouraging response. "And whom has he married?"
Further frantic searching from the boy produced the following: "One of the Elliot girls, from Kellynch. Old Sir Walter's daughters."
This was met with silence. Benwick looked up again, to find the captain staring at the red faced boy. This, he assumed, was because of the offhand and disrespectful tone in which the last remark had been made. Finally the captain spoke:
"One of the Elliot girls -- Miss Elliot, perhaps? Or a younger sister?"
"Oh Lord, sir, not Miss Elliot. Sir Walter would never allow that. Must be one of the younger ones." said Dick.
The captain's face tightened. "Indeed. So, you can write to your mother "I am very glad to hear of Charles" marriage, and wish him and my new sister all warmth and happiness". And I believe it would be right to send your regards to Sir Walter, for I take him to be the father of the Miss Elliot concerned, and of her sisters. So "please convey my respects to Sir Walter and Miss Elliot and -- ", do you recall the name of the younger sister, or indeed sisters, who remain? Perhaps if you knew the name of the bride, you could deduce the other."
Colouring, the boy turned once again to the letter. "Well there are three -- Miss Elizabeth, she is the oldest, it cannot be her. And of the other two there is really only one any sensible fellow would marry, it must be her -- I know Charles has always liked her".
More hasty scanning of the paper was prompted by the cold stare of his captain. James Benwick was moved to intervene, sure that the captain was angry with the boy's manner and thinking it might be best to end the performance. He was stopped by a raised hand, and the captain, never taking his eyes from the perspiring midshipman, saying "Let him find it himself, Mr Benwick."
All the other young men had by now ceased their own writing and were watching the scene. At one time or another they had all had reason to be spoken to severely by the captain, but his usual style was warmth and encouragement. They were not quite sure what their colleague had done to provoke what they, like Lieutenant Benwick, took to be anger, but it has to be acknowledged that they were not sorry to see it. Since joining the ship at Gibraltar, Dick Musgrove had not made himself popular and while they were amazed that he had been so careless as to employ his customary offhand and casual tone not just in the captain's presence, but directly in response to the captain's questions, they were all diverted by the sight of him squirming under the captain's stern gaze.
The boy, aware that he was the focus of so much attention, at last found what he was looking for -- "Mary" he squeaked, "he has married Mary Elliot", his voice rising with his relief.
Benwick turned to hide his smile. Mr Musgrove's peers were not so considerate but their sniggers died as the captain continued: "Very good. So you might send your congratulations to Charles and your new sister Mary. And your respects to Sir Walter, Miss Elliot and Miss Anne -- I assume from your former uncertainty that Miss Anne Elliot is still single?" A nod from the boy. "In that case, that would be the appropriate form of address."
At this point he rose. "Well, gentlemen, please continue with your correspondence for now. Mr Benwick, perhaps you would provide any further assistance required. I suggest another fifteen minutes should be sufficient, and the letters can come ashore in the gig with me this afternoon." With a nod to Benwick, he left.
The cabin returned to an industrious silence, broken only by the scratching of the young men's pens as they hastily finished their letters in order to escape. After ten minutes, only Dick Musgrove remained, working laboriously. Benwick leaned over his shoulder to read the sentence he was working on, obviously a description of their captain: "...a fine dashing felow, only two perticular about the schoolmaster...".