This is the first time that the Knolly Estate has allowed the great man's memoirs to be published. What follows is the forty-ninth section of 'An African Adventure'.
I must confess that this was not the way that we had planned to leave the African continent. I, along with Bertie, had envisaged us safely home by Christmas, having sailed home on a Castle Mail Packet Company ship or similar... but it looked as though the earliest that we would be home would be to celebrate my thirty-fourth birthday. Thirty-four! Given the danger inherent in our japes and scrapes, who would have thought that I would have made it this far? I had imagined that I would be dead by the age of thirty — perhaps a victim of an encounter with a nemesis, perhaps being washed overboard while on the high seas. The potential scenarios were endless. Bertie often (and understandably) thought that my outlook was rather morbid, but I tried to turn it into a positive: every year since my thirtieth was a bonus as far as I was concerned and I was determined to live life to the full, as if every day might be my last.
I was shaken from my meditation by a shout from the quayside. It was Ladybouy, shouting 'Goodbye!'
'I'll deliver this by hand myself. You can trust me,' he called up, waving a letter.
'I owe you a debt of gratitude, Lieutenant,' I called back. 'God speed!'
'You too, sir!' He stood and saluted smartly as the St George moved away from her moorings.
Bertie gave him a cheery wave and turned to me. 'Good chap, that. Shame about his name, though.'
'Oh, I don't know. "Mungo" is not such a bad nickname — or did you mean Hillary?' I replied rather absently.
'Ermmm... I meant his surname,' said Bertie.
'Hmmmm, indeed. He must have come in for some awful ribbing at school. Much like that Scandinavian fellow Jaarse we knew at Addley and Stanner — what was his forename again?'
'Hugh, wasn't it?' replied Bertie.
'Anyway, I do hope that the information we have given him will prove useful in his career. When the Navy has no further need for him, I am sure that other opportunities will avail themselves.'
'Thinking ahead, eh Knolly? That's the ticket!' said Bertie. 'But what of us for the next few days? I get the feeling that no one really wants us aboard.'
This sentiment had a ring of truth about it. After Ladybuoy gathered up his notes, he had shown us to our quarters and introduced us to the officers on the current watch; they greeted us with perfunctory politeness and then went about their business as quickly as possible. It would seem that from the Admiral down they had nothing but contempt for the work that Bertie and I did — and they had just the same contempt for their own intelligence-gathering comrades.
I sighed. 'I am afraid that this voyage will not have the same joie de vivre that was apparent with Kapitain Trublemacher. These chaps are strong believers in gunboat diplomacy and do not wish to be running a bus service.'
Bertie chuckled. 'So we keep ourselves to ourselves, then?'
Well, I am sure that's what the Admiral would like. But then again, where's the fun in that?' I said with a wink.
By now our ship had turned into the wind and was heading out into the Atlantic proper, closely marked by attentive escort on either side. I glanced up at Table Mountain, growing further distant. After a few moments of silence, Bertie spoke.
'She — I mean, Elspeth — will be all right, Knolly. She is one of those modern-type scary women that can take care of herself, you know....'
I smirked at his use of the word 'scary', but in a way he was right. 'I know, I know! And I am sure that is what I find so damned attractive about her. Come on!' I said. 'Let's go belowdecks and see if we can find a game of cards — or at least someone to talk to who doesn't object to our presence.'
'I hope there are such people on board. If not, it will be a very long voyage.' And then he was suddenly distracted by something in the sky and called out, 'Ah! Look there!'
I scanned in the direction that Bertie was pointing and, sure enough, there was a glint of sunlight on something... something not natural... something manufactured... something metallic. 'Let us hope that our new-found friend has been scanning the skies since he left us. I'm not sure he believed everything we told him....'
'Well, I'm not sure either — and I was there!' said Bertie. 'Where do you think it is headed?'
'It does not matter to us; I'm afraid that there is nothing that we can do, Bertie. It is now somebody else's problem, so we might as well go in search of conversation and suchlike.'
Despite our best efforts in trying to engage in friendly banter, the Admiral and his senior officers continued to avoid having anything to do with us. Bertie (Lord love him!) even resorted to hiding in the wardroom and suddenly leaping out from under the table, but it was if they were under orders to disbelieve in our existence. And so we went back belowdecks, where we whiled away many an hour on that voyage, playing strange derivatives of card games that only bored military men can think up — games such as 'Beggar My Parrot', 'Blind Battleship' and 'Rollocks'. I had played all of these (or variations) before, but I was surprised at how quickly Bertie mastered them all.
Time seemed to drag and one hour became much like the next. I think that we were about three days out from South Africa when our existence was finally acknowledged and we were summoned to see Admiral Rawson. The ship was pitching rather alarmingly and the pair of us had difficulty with focusing on the horizon, which seemed to not be there for lengthy periods of time.
'Any idea why he wants to see us, Knolly?' inquired Bernie as he fought to stay upright, just missing grabbing the summoning junior officer who quickly made himself scarce through another doorway.
'I hope it is to apologise for the lack of entertainment!' I said, only half in jest.
'Oh, I don't know. I've rather enjoyed the last few days — keeping out of everyone's way, helping out in the engine room and whatnot.'
'You know what I mean, Bertie. It's a poor show the way we've been treated by the officer class. Dash it all, it's not our fault we had them sail out into the Atlantic!' I stopped in mid-rant. Bertie had rushed to the side of the ship and was cocking his ear as though listening for some exotic bird call or siren. 'Bertie? I say, what's up, old fruit?'
'Engine noise has changed,' he whispered. 'We're slowing down!'
'Ah!' I replied.
'Ah?' he countered.
'Ah indeed. I think that we need to collect some information that has been kept from us until now. Come along. Let's away to the bridge.'
Even though we were no longer under full steam, the St George did not make climbing a stairway easy. However, we made great (but rather clumsy) haste and managed to make a calm and business-like entrance. Once inside, I stood to attention and saluted. Bertie kept well behind me.
'You wished to see us, Admiral?'
Rawson turned toward us. I was expecting to be greeted by a face like thunder. Instead there was the merest hint of a smile beneath the whiskers. 'Ah, Commander Knolly! Excellent! This is where, I am glad to say, we part company.' Hence the semi-smile. With that, he handed over a sealed manila envelope. 'I have my orders, Commander, and they included handing these over to you when we reached this exact spot.'
Bertie tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, 'Um... does he realise that we are in the middle of the Atlantic? What do they plan to do? Cast us adrift in an open boat?'
'Mr Harrison-Harrison,' barked Rawson. 'I am not deaf. Much as I detest passengers — and especially those who execute your line of work — I do not intent to leave you here. If the Commander would hurry up and open his sealed orders, he will be able to tell you what we are waiting for. And while we are...'
He was interrupted at this point by the lookout. 'Pardon me, sir. Off the port bow, sir. A wave seems to be forming.'
'Ah! Good. Right on time, too,' he said as he glanced at the ship's timepiece (which was, rather curiously for a ship of His Majesty's Navy, a cuckoo-clock). 'Gentlemen, I suggest that you repair to your quarters, pack your bags and prepare to disembark.'
Bertie puffed himself up in preparation for an indignant blast. I managed to nod my thanks to the Admiral, salute and bundle Bertie out of the bridge in as few moves as possible. The St George had as good as come to a full stop and the Atlantic swell was now getting into its stride.
'What the deuce is going on now, Knolly?' asked Bertie, outraged and confused.
'Well, we can either go below and open this sealed envelope, or we can wait awhile and see just what is rising from beneath the waves. Up to you.'
Bertie struck a thoughtful pose. 'How about we open the envelope and stay to watch?'
'Capital choice! Any thoughts on what we might expect to see any minute now?'
'Hmmm.... Well, I would have to say that it is likely to be some type of undersea vessel. I mean, everyone thinks that they need one, and the tars upstairs certainly didn't seem overly concerned by what the lookout had spotted... but....'
At this point, Bertie stopped talking, walked calmly down the stairway and stood by the deck rail. I followed him and marvelled at the site before us, for there — rising from the depths — was a submarine. As she surfaced, a funnel was raised so that she resembled any other ship, albeit very low in the water.
'Hah!' said Bertie. 'Steam-powered when she's on the surface. Wouldn't have been my choice. I wonder how they deal with the heat....'
His question was soon answered. A hatch opened and several men emerged, gasping for breath. Bertie grinned. The designers of this vessel had not yet cracked the problem of dissipation of heat when submerged. The grin disappeared when he realised that the submarine was going to be our home for a period.
'I think I had better look and these orders, eh?' I said by way of distraction.
Bertie pondered. 'Yes. I think that would be wise. Much as I want to have a look around that vessel, I don't fancy travelling all the way in it. Do you think that we could opt for being cast adrift?'