This is the first time that the Knolly Estate has allowed the great man's memoirs to be published. What follows is the forty-seventh section of 'An African Adventure'.
It was not the first time I had boarded a boat in this way - that had been many years ago when I was but a young man - nor was it to be the last. Ladybouy was up first, followed by the bluejackets who swarmed up like monkeys, and then it was my turn. Whilst it was a lot easier than a normal ladder, the stairway did seem to have a life of its own, bumping all of us into the side of the ship with no favouritism whatsoever. A large swell caught me unawares and I was only saved from an early bath by the dexterity and strength of Stoker Grimes behind me.
How he managed this without dropping me or the bags he was toting I do not know. My mind was distracted as I wondered if Grimes had remembered us from the little episode in the sauna. (Heaven forbid that he did! I imagined that he might give us a warmer reception than we had given him). I stole a glance below to see Bertie starting his ascent. He gave a sickly smile and tried to wave while holding onto the ropes with both hands - all very comical indeed.
I reached the top without any further mishap and was helped aboard by a young midshipman. He gave a smart salute as he nodded to the piper. I smartly grabbed the whistle before he had even finished puckering up, let alone commenced with the tooting.
'I don't think that will be required!' I snapped.
The massed ranks and officers looked aghast and open mouthed at the break in protocol. Ladybouy spoke up:
'But you are a Commander, Sir!', obviously trying to rescue a tricky situation.
'Technically yes, but I thought from all the recent palaver that Bertie and I coming aboard by this means was to try and keep a low profile. You will also notice that I am not in uniform, so does it not seem a trifle pointless and silly, hmm?'The ensuing awkward silence was broken by a familiar voice.
'Oh, hullo! Welcoming committee, eh? Good show!'
I turned to see Bertie's head – complete with wide-eyed grin - peering over the gunwale. 'I was just pointing out to Ladybouy and the young middy here that we do not wish to stand on ceremony', I said.
'Oh! Bit harsh, Knolly! I mean look at the poor chaps. I doubt they get to practise this very often and you've gone and spoiled it! Give the chap back his whistle and let 'em pipe me aboard.'
I looked around at the pleading and expectant faces; I knew when I was beaten and so handed back the whistle and took myself to one side. Bertie, of course, lorded over the proceedings whilst I took in the comings and goings of a ship that looked to my eye to being readied to sail once more. Our belongings had been swiftly handed over to waiting ratings and our squad of rescuers were dismissed to go about their shipboard duties. I nodded my thanks once more to Grimes as he passed by me on his way to his fiery workplace.
'Well, that was all very jolly, I must say' said a beaming Bertie. He noticed that I was less than happy. 'Now don't be all cross with me', he continued. 'It's your silly anti-authority attitude not mine. Besides... I'm sure a happy crew works harder, eh? Never forget the little man.'
I gave him a wan smile. 'Have you quite finished?' Bertie nodded.
'Right then. Let us introduce ourselves to the Admiral. Ah! Here comes Ladybouy.'
Ladybouy, having dismissed the assembled men, walked sheepishly towards us. I started to apologise.
'I am most sorry about that, please forgive me it's just that...'
He held up a hand to stop me. 'No, no, I quite understand. Dashed silly of me really. I'm not thinkin' straight. Now, if you'll just follow me I'll show you to the Admiral's quarters'.
As we made our way though the interior, Bertie whispered in my ear: 'When do you think we are going to get off of this tub?'
'I have my doubts. I think we'll be off on the next tide, earliest. The crew seem far too busy...' I whispered back.
'What??' exploded Bertie.
The noise of Bertie's reply reverberated around the confines of the corridor. Ladybouy was about to rap on a solid door when it flew open and through it loomed a grizzled bewhiskered mariner. With lightning speed, the whiskered one managed to clasp Ladybouy's wrist in mid-rap and prevented what would have been a fierce bash on the hooter. More importantly, it prevented a fierce knocking on the Admiral's hooter, no less.
'Ah, Admiral, Sir' said Ladybouy, all a-fluster. 'Permit me to introduce your passengers.'
The Admiral let go of Ladybouy's wrist and looked him in the eye. 'They aren't supposed to know that yet', he growled.
'I... err... think they have guessed, Sir. It's their job to work things out.'
'Humph! Well, get on with it, man' harrumphed the seadog. 'Introduce me damn it, and then get ready to get off of my ship before I throw you off meself!'
'Sir, I remind you that I need to debrief them before I leave. In any case, this is Commander Knolly, and this is his associate - Mr Harrison-Harrison'
'Commander Knolly' he nodded. 'Heard a lot about you. Not all good in my books, either.' I proffered a hand which he ignored. 'We still salute superior ranks in the Navy' he sniffed.
'My rank as you know is purely...'
The Admiral raised a threatening eyebrow that moved up his forehead like a small thundercloud. I saluted and so did Bertie, who felt he should show solidarity.
'Thank you! Now please sit down. Ladybouy! Are you still here? You can debrief these fellows when I am good and done – and then you can get ashore.'
The lieutenant nodded his thanks, saluted and shuffled away. The Admiral showed us into his ante-room, invited us to sit and then began to speak.
'I am not at all comfortable with this current business. I will have you know that I would much rather be blastin' the enemy into submission with all available guns than this skulkin' around in alleyways with cloaks and daggers. Should be a cutlass at least and a belaying pin. I'm sure you have questions.'
I was about to answer when the Admiral stood abruptly and unlocked his desk drawer.
'Well, unfortunately I don't have any answers for you other than this.' So saying, he tossed over a sealed envelope which was quite weighty. Our messages. Things certainly had been moving since we left Blighty. 'These orders and assorted telegrams started arriving for you a month or so ago. Your superiors obviously thought you would have made local contact before now.' He paused and pulled a face which I imagine was supposed to be a smile. 'We've been on the lookout for you since they started coming through every other day both on land and at sea. Luckily for us, we were watching the railway station and telegraph office. Now... I have my own orders and these begin with setting sail on the next tide. That includes you and your civilian friend. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a fleet to run. Ladybouy will show you where you can bunk before we sail.'
We both stood and saluted. The Admiral returned our salute and then bustled his way out of the ante-room and along the corridor, barking orders as he went along. We waited until he was well out of earshot.
Bertie looked at me.
'Well!', he exclaimed.
'Busy man, Bertie. Busy man.'
'Yes, but he never even offered us a drink and it's well past lunchtime! I don't think he cares much for our line of work, either.'As ever, Bertie was quick to notice any underlying subtexts or ironies.
'Yes - poor Lieutenant Ladybouy! We must ensure that we give him plenty of information to have made his time serving under the Admiral worthwhile. How about we see what's been going on.' With that, I handed over a sheaf of papers to Bertie.
'Here you start with these and I'll take the rest.' We sat down and pored over the documents that had been sent over the past months, intended for us but never reaching us. My original suppositions seemed accurate, but it was hidden within subtexts and Bertie struggled without the necessary decoding books of the day. However, it seemed that Biggfatt had got his knuckles severely rapped for sending us in the first place. Other arms of Her Majesty's Government were dealing with the Rhodes issue now, and the arrangement between the Germans and ourselves was being formalised. Our interception of the telegram was - of course - unknown at this point, but it was obvious that we were to be recalled. Bertie sat back, stared at the ceiling and exhaled.
'Well, Knolly. Once again you were right,' he sighed.
'It would appear so, but I have yet to find out what our exact orders are. I've not found anything amongst my half.'
'Me neither. Oh wait! There's something still in the envelope.' Bertie shook out the remaining telegram and cast his eye over the text.
'Oh Lord... I need a drink!' he said as he handed me the message. I read it.
'I think in the circumstances I'll join you.' He poured us each a glass of port from the Admirals cut glass decanter.
'Here's to Christmas in Venezuela,' he said - trying to raise a smile as he raised his glass.