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 (5 page)

BOOK: 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
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Not at all, sir. Do you choose to come back in Suffolk ’
s barge with your own coxswain?”


Thank you, Simmons, but I think I shall shift my clothes, look through the chief of these papers and then c ome across at about four bells.”

At the fourth stroke
he ran down to the sadly weather-beaten boat where his coxswain was already sitting in the bows with his precious burden - ran down looking very grave. The red ribbon of his order shone in the light as he came aboard the Suffolk, but his face was as grave as ever: this was a profoundly serious occasion and he scarcely smiled as Simmons presented his officers.

This ceremony over, he nodded to his coxswain, standing there by the mizzen, and said, “Heave out the flag.”

The folded bundle soared aloft, followed with the utmost concentration by all hands: at exactly the right moment, the exact height to an inch, the coxswain snapp ed the tie and the rear-admiral’
s blue flag streamed out bravely in the wind, instantly greeted by the first of thirteen solemn guns, enormously loud, salutes from all the members of the blue squadron, distant cheering from Surprise and clouds of wheeling, discontented gulls.


May I sugge st a tour of the flagship, sir?”
asked Simmons, with what cheerfulness he could muster; and together they paced along the decks, through the heady scent of powder, watched with discreet intensity by all who could decently do so and by some who could not.

“Tell me, Simmons,”
said Jack as they left the main magazine, walking delicately, as well they might with so many ton s of gunpowder just behind them “
does the Admiral sail with a flag-captain?”

“He did,” said Simmons, embarrassed. “
But Captain Fielding is going home with me if Surprise can find room for us both.”

“Ah,”
said Jack, aware t hat his question was untimely. “
I only asked because I thought he might answer some of my less important questions - an admiral has plenty to do without being pestered. Perhaps I might turn to his secretary.”


I am afraid that would scarcely answer. Poor Coulter had been hauled over the coals before now for exceeding his office . . . it is very like what you and I knew aboard Pegasus .”

“Oh, indeed?”
That had been a short, unhappy cruise when Jack was lent to the ship to take the place of her third lieutenant, shot through the head while attempting to board a Frenchman, Pegasus being a ship in which most people seemed to spend their time doing wrong. “
Is not Suffolk somewhat shorthanded?”
he asked, partly to change the subject but more to learn how a ship of the line could manage with so few people: the ‘
tween-decks were scarcely populated.

He di
d not learn, because the purser’
s clerk, an odd long-legged spectacled man devoured by curiosity, wished to find out who Captain Aubrey was, what he was doing here, and whether they would be able to water today or tomorrow - the great casks and hoses were all laid along — and as he uttered his almost mechanical questions, so he peered eagerly with his red-rimmed short-sighted eyes into Captain Aubrey’
s face, apparently devoid of shame. By the time his appetite, his very considerable appetite, was satisfied they had forgotten the shortage of hands and they walked on.

It was a long inspection and in the course of it Jack met almost all his new officers again, a seamanlike set of men on the whole, and cautiously welcoming — one or two former shipmates, known long ago. But he received a general impression of anxiety and overwork, an impression that was in part overlaid by his meeting with the gunner, the master-gunner, among his twenty-four-pounders, all as trim as heavy cannon could well be and all equipped with shining Douglas sights.

A long inspection, and by the end of it, when they stood there together in the bows, gazing out towards the approaching but still distant squadron Jack had come to like his anxious, somewhat hag-ridden companion well enough to ask, “
In really heavy weather, have you not found it difficult to work th e ship with so small a company?”


I have indeed: and I have hea rd of it, I do assure you . . .”
He was cut short by a hail from the masthead and a moment later the message came forward: the rear-admiral was desired to go aboard the flag.


I a
m afraid it will be a wet pull,” said Simmons. “
May I l end you a tarpaulin jacket?”

“If you please,”
said Jack: his fine but aged uniform had not much wear left in it and he was a long, long way from home.

A wet pull it was, through an increasingly choppy sea, right into the eye of the wind: it was however shortened by the zeal of the white and blue squadrons to reach a hospitable port.

“Well, Aubrey,”
said the Admiral, looking at hi m with a certain satisfaction, “
You have had a wet time of it, I see. You should have put on an oilskin: still, we cannot all be wise all the time. I have called you out so far from shore because there are two questions I should like to settle. The first is supplies. We are very low in everything -tobacco is quite gone - and all the way down my pursers, agents and so on have had the utmost difficulty with the locals, even in ports where we have always been welcomed and entertained. Difficulties about water, difficulties about cattle . . . even about shore-leave and common supplies - no bumboats coming off, no whores. What is it like with you in Buenos Aires? Should I push on? Things are desperate low and with the present ministry I dare not use force. How are things with you?”


My lord, until a few days ago we had great difficulty in getting supplies of any kind, but then an eminent ecclesiastic, a Papal Nuncio particularly well known to my political adviser Dr Maturin . . .”


Yes, yes. S
i r Joseph mentioned him to me: I shall pay him some attention.”


. . . came in and now everything is settled. We lack for nothing, and prices are very moderate. We are amply stored for the Cape, and Surprise, which is now bound for home with my dispat ches, is in much the same case.”


I am heartily glad to hear of it. Th at will be a very great relief.”
Lord Leyton uttered these words, but his aged yellow face did not match them at all. His expression remained discontented, querulous, ready to find fault or to contradict. However he did say, “
Surprise: yes, that reminds me.
One of the reasons that I asked you to come out was to tell you that I intend to send two of my officers home in her and to ensure that there should be no trouble about taking them and an unsatisfactory midshipman aboard your vessel.”


You will forgive me, my lord, but Surprise is no longer my vessel. To be sure, I did command her, but she was on hire to the Hydrographical Department of the Admiralty until I should meet your squadron, hoist my flag and take up my new appointment. The moment I did that, Surprises contract with the Admiralty came to an end. She returns to the sole ownership of her proprietor, a free agent. If you wish I will ask him whether he chooses to take these people aboard: but it is entirely at his discretion. He is at no man’s command.”


What a damned hair-splitting sea-lawyer you are, upon my word, Aubrey,”
cried the Admiral. “
You can damned well go back to that half-baked privateerly donkey-frigate and give the owner my orders to take these two officers and the reefer aboard. If he makes the slightest demur or objection tell him that I shall press every man in his ship and leave him to wallow in the mud of the River Plate until she rots.”
At this point the Admiral's yellow face had a curious flush and his eyes fairly blazed: one clenched fist rose and fell.


The slightest demur or objection . . . shall press every man . . .”
repeated Jack, rising and drawing his tarpaulin round him.


Awkward, legalistic, cavilling sod . . .”
muttered the Admiral: and then, more audibly, as he rang for his steward, “
Sit down, sit down, and drink some Madeira to the squadron’s supplies. Amphlett” - to the steward – “
the decanter of Madeira from the coach: and a couple of glasses.”
A pause, and he went on, “
I do not like to ask a political adviser to come out in this blow - the doctor physicked Prince William, did he not? I am told he is very well with His Highness. But if you would tell him that you have explained the situation and that I should take it as a personal favour if he would allow these people to go aboard his ship, I should be obliged t o you.”


Very good, sir. Now if I may I shall carry your message to Dr Maturin: if I were to take your purser and perhaps your secretary back with me to Surprise, my people could tell them all we know about our plentiful, plentiful sources of supply. The present governor is entirely on our side, and I do not think you will be disappointed.”

“Make it so, Aubrey”
said the Admiral, rising. And when you dine aboard me tomorrow, pray bring your political adviser. I should be happy to be acquainted with him and to offer what civilities I can. I presume he goes home in Surprise.


I cannot tell, my lord: his mission in Chile is clearly at an end — a most satisfactory end –
but there may also be some duties waiting for him in South Africa and above all eastwards. He and Dr Jacob are very knowing about those parts. But in any case I mean to return to her at once, and transfer some of her hands to poor thin Suffolk.


Aye. It was the yellow jack. Off Port of Spain .”


And I shall carry your message. Your servant, my lord, and thank you for the capital Madeira.”

The pull back had the breeze and the sea right aft, and Jack went aboard Surprise in fine style, the side dressed by smiling seamen and officers. He asked for the Doctor, who, unused to the ceremonies attending a flag-officer, was reading in the great cabin, reading his letters from home. Jack noticed his gravity but delivered Lord Leyton’s invitation and said, “
I shall be back in a few minutes: please sort out my post and I shall join you.”

On deck he gave the not unexpected order for all hands and when the particularly attentiv e group was assembled he said, “
Shipmates, as you know, the barky is going home. Some people are uneasy in their minds at being t hrown ashore in peace-time. . .”
A general murmur o f agreement: intense interest. “
Well, I can take sixty-three prime seamen over to Suffolk with me. Aboard her it would in course be the same pay, rations and allowances as here, and in her you would find some officers you already know and a score or two of former shipmates. So let them as choose to serve on the South African station ask my clerk to set their names down on a list and I shall mark those I thi nk best suited for the climate.”

A general buzz of strong approval, not quite a cheer, out of respect for a flag officer, and Rear-Admiral Aubrey plunged below, where Stephen looked up with a frown, pushing Jack’
s heap towards him and silently going on with his own.
Sophie Aubrey had almost all the virtues of a woman who had had the meagre education of her class, taught by a singularly ignorant governess –
little beyond the three R’
s and a smattering of French together with a list of good and bad kings. She had never been encouraged to read and in fact she had read very little; but she could and did write a singularly beautiful hand. Her piano-playing was purely mechanical, yet then again she had naturally pretty manners, she was tall and slim, her complexion was quite admirable and she moved with a perfect, unconscious grace - it was a delight to see her going down the dance. But she was an indifferent, unwilling horsewoman in spite of arduous, dreaded lesso ns in her youth and her husband’
s kindly-meant encouragement: and she had never learnt to date her letters.

Jack’
s bundle had not come aboard arranged in order of time and although from a few hints thrown out by chance - gifts of partridges, the flower ing of certain shrubs, children’
s holidays, birthday feasts - he slowly imposed a remote hint of sequence he could scarcely confide in it at all. He did make out that his valuable agent was managing his more distant estate - the inherited rotten borough that gave him a seat in Parliament -remarkably well, that the Woolcombe land was more prosperous than ever it had been, and that generally speaking the children’
s health, apart from the usual coughs, colds and one greenstick fracture, was all that could be wished.

Th
e pattern, the history of all that these many letters told, was still very far from clear, but the hint of discord and unhappiness that he had acquired from the first random pages and that he had carried with an anxious mind to the Suffolk — the hint that had much increased the gravity of that ceremony - now expanded to a conscious and reasoned certainty: there had indeed been grave unhappiness at Woolcombe, and in all likelihood the unhappiness was still there.

From time to time he glanced over at Stephen, who was equally grave, but whose letters - whose dated and indeed numbered letters (for from early childhood Christine had been brought up to keep exact ornithological and botanical records) were now assembled in neatly-ordered piles that he was at present annotating in a private script, just as he would have annotated any other body of intelligence documents.
From time to time Stephen felt his friend’
s gaze heavy upon him; but this was an exceedingly delicate affair, with very strong emotions involved, and he did not choose to broach a subject that concerned Jack even more than it concerned him: still less did he wish to force a confidence. He therefore made no observation of any kind until Jack turned and said, “
Brother, I am most uncommon stupid today, what with the emotion of hoisting my flag - hoisting my flag, God bless us all - and having a set-to with Lord Leyton as well as coping with our people - and I cannot make head or tail of what is afoot at home, except that they do not seem to be quite friends. Have you puzzled it out? I mean, if you hav e had the same kind of letters?”


I believe I have, my dear, though I may well be mistaken. You will recall that Christine went down to Woolcombe at my particular request and at dear Sophie's invitation?”


Yes, yes: I reme mber it perfectly”


At that time your twin daughters were away, at their aunt's school in Ulster .”


Just so. They travelled with James Callaghan, whose eldest girl is there too.”


So at Woolcombe there was just Sophie, your young George on long leave while his ship was refitting, Christine Wood and my Brigid. Edward Heatherleigh had brought them down from the North Country, but at that point he did not stay, having at least three pa p ers to read before the Society.”


All this while we were moving slowly down towards Brazil.”

Stephen nodded and went on, “
Perhaps I told you that among a quantity of letters that I received at Funchal there was a note from Edward speaking of his delight, in the countryside about Woolcombe and his hope of hunting there one day?”


I believe you did. Do you think a pot o f coffee would sharpen my wits?”
He touched the bell. “You will take a cup, I am sure?”

Stephen agreed and went on. “
That was the posture of affairs: a very elegant posture too, with George and Brigid excellent good friends, often riding on a stout well boned pony - the source, ala s, of that greenstick fracture.”


It knit very soon and it earned h im another three months’ leave.”


To be sure. And this was the state of affairs when Edward came back from London.
He had been charmed by the reception of his papers and he was even more charmed by the countryside; he thought it ideal for fishing, for hunting fox or hare, and for recording the movements, mating, nesting and diet of an extraordinarily large number of birds, and he asserted that he should start making enquiries for a house to be let or sold, observing that although their place in the north was very well, the weather was exceptionally and increasingly severe, which his declining health could no longer endure. So Sophie, judging very rightly from his carriage, servants and evident style of living, suggested a comfortable, fair-sized house a quarter o f a mile away.”

“Medenham.”


Just so . . . which had been empty for some time, but which, with a gardens and meadows, had been carefully kept up and which was to be had at a modest rent by a tenant such as Mr Heatherleigh, and if dear Christine liked she would ask the agent for an order to view.

The brother and sister viewed with every intention of being pleased and they came away delighted. Indeed they would have been difficult to satisfy if they had not liked Medenham, a warm, comfortable, spaciou s, low-built house of Charles II’
s time with linen-cupboards fit to shelter a troop of horses, massive furniture of another age and a considerable library, mostly of travel and natural philosophy.

The affair was soon concluded; necessaries and a few servants were sent down from the north, and the new tenants moved in; the nearby families soon paid their visits, and Mr Heatherleigh and his sister were pronounced a great acquisition to the neighbourhood, particularly as Mr Heatherleigh spoke eagerly of his intention to hunt that year.

This however proved a hope not easily realized. The horses were soon in the stalls, a handsome bay mare and two promising grey geldings, but Mr Heatherleigh had a troublesome neighbour in the north who coveted his estate and when it was refused to be sold this man turned to the exceedingly complex law governing mineral deposits in those parts which, he contended, gave him the right in the peculiar jurisdiction of the province to pursue an uninterrupted vein under the adjoining land –
under Edward Heatherleigh’
s land. Before Michaelmas, therefore, the poor man climbed into his coach again and travelled northwards to his bitter moors through the driving rain, to spend all his diminishing energy in lawyers’
meetings and vain attempts at unders tanding counsels’
opinions on the most profoundly obscure customary laws of usage where minerals were concerned in that particular district.

During this period Christine spent much of her time at Woolcombe, and so, except for those necessary hours in the school-room with her new governess, the capable and intelligent Miss West, did Brigid, walking in and out as though it were her own home, often accompanied by her companion George, who sometimes improved his indifferent mathematics with Miss West and sometimes showed both governess and pupil the higher flights of knotting.

It was during the later part of this season when field mushrooms were to be had by the basketful for the picking that the little household began to look for the return of Mr Edward - he had uttered some general remarks about having a wheel retyred and the horses shod — when a carriage was heard coming up the drive. For a few moments those who were drinking tea in the small drawing-room thought it might possibly be Mr Edward's coach, sounding soft because of the rain: but not at all — it was a common post-chaise bringing the twins earlier than usual (not at all uncommon with Sophie’
s sister, who would seize upon any conveyance, any travelling-companion, to send her pupils home).

The letters that described this homecoming varied; but Stephen, who knew those concerned extremely well, saw the Aubrey girls hurrying in, tired, cross and hungry, intensely jealous at seeing Brigid sitting there by their mother, warm, prettily dressed and well-fed. “Are you still here?”
asked Charlotte . “You are always here!”
cried Fanny, and there was some motion towards pushing her off the sofa, strongly repelled by George. Clearly Sophie and Christine dealt with the situation - the clack and din of the accompanying County Armagh maidservant was a great help — and the Aubrey girls were taken away, washed and fed, while Christine led Brigid home, desiring Padeen to carry the twins’
trunk indoors and settle with the postillion.

“As I see it, dear Jack,” said Stephen, “the twins’
jealousy, exacerbated by the weariness of travelling, extreme hunger and the hot squalor of a post-chaise, exploded into open violence when they saw Brigid there, brushed and in a handsome garment sitting in the most favoured place next to their mother.
A good night’
s sleep, a body-bath of warm water, fresh clothes and a substantial breakfast is likely to restore all their amiability.”

“I am sure you are right,”
said Jack, but he did not believe it. He knew, far better than Stephen, that there was little amiability to restore. Not from the beginning, when the little girls were virtually one being, but quite early, he had seen this jealousy directed by a mutual common understanding against any person, any creature even, for whom their gentle and affectionate mother showed a particular liking. Their father, being a sort of household god, was exempt, and so were some of the minor animals; but not George, who was accused of siding with Brigid against them and of running after her like a little dog.

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