Read 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey Online

Authors: Patrick O'Brian,Patrick O'Brian

Tags: #Maturin; Stephen (Fictitious character), #Historical - General, #South Africa, #English Historical Fiction, #FICTION, #Aubrey; Jack (Fictitious character), #Historical adventure, #Sea Stories, #Historical, #British, #Crime & Thriller, #General, #Fiction - Historical

21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey (2 page)

BOOK: 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
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In the event the few inhabitants of San Pedro did not offer to challenge a reasonably powerful man-of-war moored broadside-on before their settlement, nor the powerful, cutlass-bearing seamen who walked along the quay. Yet although most of the citizens were at least partly Tierra del Fuegians and although none of them could have had any first-hand knowledge of recent events they were sullen and unfriendly, yielding only a few indifferent potatoes and wilted cabbages at an exorbitant price.
However, the ship did top up her water from a clear free-running stream, no great distance from its parent glacier; and still with this blessed westerly breeze she pursued her long twisting course through the strait, Jack, Hanson and Daniel perpetually taking bearings, soundings, views of the shore (icy to the southwards, often raining to the north) and establishing a truly remarkable chart.

Stephen, who had no abilities whatsoever in this direction, confined himself to his medical duties of course (slight though they were, with a healthy crew and such an able assistant as Jacob), to watching and sometimes dissecting the birds, mammals and marine plants and creatures of the strait, and much of this he added to his letter to Christine, she being the only woman of his acquaintance who knew the difference between a jackass penguin and a macaroni and who delighted in the knowledge.
She would also delight in the knowledge, reflected her lover, that these most inhospitable shores, often snowy on the south of the strait, always icy on the northern height, nevertheless sheltered at least one parrot or parakeet, a green bird with a fine red tail that flew in noisy groups in the beech-woods, and a minute humming-bird that could be seen sipping nectar from the fuchsias in Tierra del Fuego when the ship was on that side of the channel.

He was reasonably well
engaged with this letter one afternoon after dinner when Jack, abandoning his fiddle, returned to his surveying, and Stephen, clog g ing his passage on Port Egmont hens (often to be seen), lifted his head to Hanson's reiterated “Sir, if you please.”


Why, Master dear ”
- for Horatio Hanson was acting-master of the ship – “
I fear you have been waiting. I never heard you.”


Not at all, sir: it was only that Dr Jacob feared you might have overlooked your appointment.”
At this moment a tiny chime could be heard in the bosom of both, for each possessed wonderfully accurate repeating watches, the one a replacement of the minute timepiece that Stephen had given to Christine, the other Prince William’
s parting gift to his son.

God love us all, and may I be forgiven,”
cried Stephen, leaping up. “It is half three - I am late.”

“Mind your step, sir,” said Hanson, steadying him. “
It is blowing up uncommon stiff from the west-north-west - has veered three points in half an hour, and
Ringle
is reefing hard.”

They made their way forward to the fairly well-lit and now vacant space in the sick -berth which the surgeons reserved for anatomizing –
for the past few days they had been busy on a singular, probably undescribed dolphin; and as they carefully pared away, separated and described the muscular part s so they gave them to the cook’
s mates, standing there with buckets. The bones they kept for themselves. But today they had been obliged to stop. The frigate’
s motion was too great, and in spite of their skill and care their cutting was by no means accurate with the deck so very much awash.


We are making ready to lie to, sir,” said Hanson in his ear. “
And the Captain says he will pass the word when it is fit for you to come on deck. In the mean time he desires you and Dr Jacob will stand by to deal with casualties.”

The first, to his own infinite shame, was H
arding, the senior lieutenant –
a straightforward fibula and tibia, which they very soon splinted and bound up: then came the usual series of bumps and bruises, diminishing as the furious gust blew itself out and ending with the Captain’
s compliments brought by Awkward Davies, and if now they chose to come on deck they would see ‘
a sight like a madhouse’
s washing-day –
God love us — what rigging we have is fair stuffed,
stuffed
, with fucking poll-parrots and God knows what. Which I am to bring you up and cop three hundred lashes if you fall.’

Stephen had of course heard of the South American parrots and he had often seen their little troops, but only from a distance, identifiable from their manner of flight and from their brilliant colour, so very unlike the general drabness of the Strait; and so eager was he to reach the first, entangled in the leeward shrouds, that he would certainly have go ne over the side but for Davies’
powerful restraining hand. And it was not only parakeets, though they of course were the most obvious and the most eagerly coveted by hands, who were perfectly accustomed to the African race: even more spectacular and even more wounding were the many kinds of minute birds, including Stephen’
s Tierra del Fuegian honey-sucker, that had been dashed against the rigging or the remaining sails with such force that in spite of their lightness they were quite shattered and as the blast died away, deck, lighter rigging and scuppers were jewelled all over with their pitiful but still brilliant fragments. Some of the more solid birds, particularly the parakeets and some red-crested woodpeckers, could be revived and patched to some degree, but upon the whole it was a most dispiriting task, the more so since there was very little hope of identification in most cases. Still Stephen, seconded by his mate, did what they could in the way of retrieval, mostly of skins (exceptionally difficult on that scale) and tiny bones: they took quantities of notes and they did a little something to increase their knowledge of this almost untouched avifauna.

For two and even three
days after that furious blast the waters of the Strait remained strikingly turbulent, particularly in the Narrows, and great beds of kelp, torn loose from their basis, floated on every hand, sometimes endangering the rudder, sometimes checking the ship’
s way, and always disturbing birds, cetaceans and ordinary level-headed fishes. Nevertheless in spite of kelp, unexpected currents and strange vagaries of tide off a number of headlands, the ship’
s whole passage of the Strait, before she turned north, well out in the full Atlantic, with the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins broad on larboard bow, lasted only three hours more than nine days.

“We are making pretty good time,”
said Jack, “
and I think we may look into Port Desire and Bahia Blanca without keeping the Admiral waiting. He was not to sail till the twelfth.”


Would you ever te ll me, has he a numerous fleet?”


Pretty considerable: three squadrons, of which ours, the blue, is of course the smallest –
but, Stephen, do not think for a moment that I complain. Of course it is the smallest, being blue. But had it been half the size, I should still have given my right hand for it. Good Lord above: a flag at last! It was amazingly kind of them. Do not think for a moment that I complain, dear Stephen.”


It had not occurred to me at all, at all,”
said Stephen. And he went on, “
Since my ill-bred questioning is so prosperous - and to be sure it is very ill-bred indeed — may I ask why you mean to stop at these South American ports, when I understood you to say we could sail home with what was in the hold?”


Why, for fresh water and meat, of course, to say nothing of vegetables and fruit.
We could probably have got home, of course, but verminous, half-starved and rotten with scurvy: but that would have been a desperate stroke, in a God-damned desperate situation, one that a man could not stand. But now the case is altered. I am to join Lord Leyton in the River Plate, and I make no doubt –
for he is a very active officer, as I know full well –
that he will take the fleet down and across to the Cape with the utmost dispatch, and I prefer to be ready to weigh at the first hint of a signal, with the last cask of biscuit aboard and a well-fed, active, healthy crew –
no shore-leave will be allowed.”


But, my dear,
Surprise
is to go home, as you very well know, with your dispatches and all our letters home; and once there she reverts to the station of a private ship.
Ever since we left Magellan’
s Strait and steered north the people have become increasingly aware of this, and the joy that filled the
Surprise
has sensibly diminished day by day. You know how unhappy our men from Shelmerston were when they were paid off with the peace and how wonderfully they revived when you took them aboard.”


Certainly I know it very well, and I am going to use all what influence I may have to ease her back into the service. The squadron is pitifully short of frigates, and since I understand that our duty down there is the protection of the Indian and Chinese trade, nothing could be more useful than a nimble weatherly ship like Surprise.
And I beg you will do the same. But even if we cannot succeed directly, I am allowed my bargemen and a good many other followers –
I have little doubt that I shall house a score or so of the rest among my friends. And for those that are left, if there are any left, merchant shipping has revived wonderfully, and a seaman with a good character from the Royal Navy will not wait long for a berth.”

Just as it had been
Hanson who first sighted Cape Pilar on their eastward leg, at the very opening of the Strait, so it was his particular friend Daniel who, spending his watch below in the foretopgallant crosstrees, caught the leading-mark for Port Desire in his glass, checked it twice, and called, “
On deck, there. On deck: St Paul's Rock, twelve to fifteen miles on the larboard bow.
Dim. Comes and goes.”

It came and went because of a heavy sea inshore that covered it entirely from time to time, if not with green water then with foam; and although the rollers moderated somewhat inshore, the frigate had an uneasy time, mooring in the sullen turbulences this side of the primitive mole –
dirty water from some untimely flash-flood.


I once saw a rhea here, some way inland,”
observed Stephen, as he and Jacob were walking along the mean street (obscurely strewn with drowned dogs) to speak to the port-captain about water and vegetables. “
The South American ostrich, somewhat smaller than the African bird – a most inferior creature.”

“Ah?” said Jacob: and then “
I believe this must be the captain’s house.”

The port-captain half rose when they came in, but he was far from cordial and he said that he could not recommend the town water after this diabolic flood and all the nastiness it brought.

Stephen spoke about the country inland, a hacienda he had visited, the kindness of the people. He and the others were of course speaking Spanish and after a while the port-captain said that there happened to be a clean spring at no great distance, but they would have to pay the proprietor a fee. “
It is not for myself, you understand.
For my own part I am astonishingly generous, generous to a fault, even lavish . . .”
He spoke of his faults at some length and then, having called for coffee, he asked in a confidential, almost affectionate tone, “
Why they, obviously old and rancid Christians, consorted with those vile heretics?”
And when Stephen made the usual gesture of extreme poverty, rubbing thumb over knuckle, the captain shook his head, saying “
Ah, when the Devil drives . . . I shall send my boy with your men to Anita's spring, but they must be very respectful to her, and pluck off their hats. Her sister, Helena, the werewolf, will provide cabbages.”

So she did, fine upstanding plants, but without the least appearance of pleasure or (perhaps understandably) of common humanity: and both in these transactions and in a few others along the edge of the market the
Surprises
noticed a sullenness, a strong inclination to stare, muttering; while after some of their transactions the sellers could be seen to wash the coins or rub them industriously in the grit underfoot.

Even if the
Surprise,
with her singularly fine lines and her thirty-six-gun frigate’
s towering mainmast, had not b een so recognizable to a sailor’
s eye, her ensign would have identified her almost anywhere in the world, for on reverting to her function as a surveying-vessel under Admiralty command she had also reverted to the white ensign. At Bahia Blanca, their next port of call, Stephen, who was the natural emissary on such occasions, reported the same sullen antipathy, not unmingled with a reluctance to sell, exorbitant prices and injurious expressions.


Brother, you are playing at least half a tone too high,”
said Jack that evening as they sawed away after an early supper.


Am
I?”
cried Stephen, looking attentively at his fingers and twanging the string. “
So I am. I do beg your pardon. It is the shrill bitterness of my soul that makes its way out, I fear.”

BOOK: 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
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