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

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BOOK: 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
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It was an unhappy state of affairs, above all that Edward Heatherleigh was away in the north and that in his absence Christine was staying at Woolhampton, where her support for Brigid increased the atmosphere of ill-will.


Sometimes I count the remaining days of holiday on the calendar,’ wro te Sophie.

They seem to stretch on and on, and I am so afraid that Christine and I may quarrel.
Sometimes I see her check the angry words when the twins are particularly unkind: and rather than have that I am minded to suggest that she and Padeen should travel up to the north to stay with dear Edward, at least until the girls go back to school. I know that she is particularly anxious to escape the attentions, the very pronounced at tentions, of Captain Miller.’


I do not thi nk I know about Captain Miller.” said Stephen. “What is his ship?”

“Oh no: he is only a soldier,” said Jack. “
He has a moderate estate the other side of Caxley. A surprising number of pheasants; but a sad coxcomb, I fear. I only say ‘
How d'ye do?’
when we meet. A soldier: his regiment was posted to Sierra Leone at one time. That will be the Admiral,”
he said, breaking off as the salute began, doubled and redoubled by echoes and by the citad el's prodigious reply to Leyton’
s civility.

“The Admiral is at hand,”
said Jack in the flattened silence, and I should have told you before that he begs the favour of passage home for his flag-captain and another unfortunate whose name I forget. And I rather think, brother, that I have pledged your word in exchange for the moving of sixty-odd prime hands to Suffolk, which can hardly win her anchors else. Oh , they were so happy when . . .”

“Wittles is up,”
said Killick, and the scent of toasted cheese wafted in with him.

They ate in silence, intently, hungrily; and then , resting his fork, Jack said, “
I have had what I think is an idea worthy of Newton: but during the night I must spend the rest of my time reading the rest of my letters and unless they contradict me I shall tell you at breakfast: for once that is eaten, Surprise must make sail.”

CHAPTER THREE

T
he diminished but still well-manned Surprise and her lithe fore-and-aft companion Ringle swung easily at their moorings on the making tide not far from the imposing Suffolk, and they gazed at the South African squadron farther inshore, actively victualling, watering and getting ready to move into various docks and yards beyond the citadel for repairs, some of them urgent.

“Good morning, Stephen,”
said Jack as his friend walked into the cabin.

“Good morning to you, my dear,”
said Stephen.


You
have done your writing, I see?”


So I have too: a simple harsh direction that Brigid shall be delivered into the hands of the bearer and carried aboard — whichever vessel we decide upon — there to be in her father’
s custody: this is, as I understand it, a necessary legal form in case any of Diana’
s relatives should object. It is, I hope entirely softened by a most affectionate private note to Christine and her bro ther, inviting them to join us.”


I have done much the same, simply requiring Sophie to come aboard with the utmost dispatch, bringing a minimum of impedi ments, and of course the girls.”

Each eyed the other’
s letter, which looked more like a laboured study than a simple note; and Jack said, “
Well, let us at least have a preliminary cup, and then we can ask Harding to join us.”
Some moments later he touched the bell, and said to Killick, “
Ask Mr Harding to walk in. Mr Harding, pray sit down - may I pour you a cup of coffee? Now you know very well that Surprise and Ringle are to return to Portsmouth with all possible speed to deliver a certain number of officers to the Commander-in-
Chief, together with the Doctor’
s communications and my dispatches. You may find it possible to shape your course without any impropriety so that you touch at Shelmerston before heading for Plymouth. If it is feasible, you, a firm-natured married man, will post straight to Woolcombe and there hand this letter to my wife and this to Mrs Wood, her near neighbour. Our hope, do you see, is to convey both ladies, together with Mrs Wood’
s brother, the three children and the strict minimum of attendants to the Cape, either catching the squadron before it leaves the River Plate or joining company during the voyage - they will almost certainly water at Saint Helena - or simply at the Cape itself. Now you know both vessels through and through; and you know more than I do about children, attendants and the married state. When you have heard the ladies express their views on baggage and on these points you will form an opinion on the irreducible minimum and choose your conveyance accordingly.
Ringle is undoubtedly faster than Surprise, but I should not like to have her pas s engers unduly cramped - given a disgust of the se a - for the sake of a few days.”


Two ladies, one gentleman, three children, and I suppose three or four maids and a man.”


It does of course depend on whether the gentleman chooses to come,”
observed Jack. “
Mr Harding, you will read these letters if you please: they are in no way confidenti al.”


I make no doub t that the gentleman will come,”
said Stephen.

Harding, a poised middle-aged lieutenant, read the letters with attention. The others watched him. “Well, sir,” he said at last, “
Well, gentlemen: I am of opinion that Ringle is the right choice. I was perpetually easing my sheet when she was in company with Surprise, though indeed there are few faster frigates. The passengers will not lie altogether at their ease, to be sure, but they will have the delight of seeing the bow-wave flung wide to leeward and the wake racing away, everything alive and tearing through the water.
They would be dull souls that did not love that: and if I may be so bold, Miss Brigid loved it purely last time she was afloat in a blow. Anyhow, you would want Ringle as a tender, sir.”


Very true: so you think all th ese people could be crammed in?”


I
should take my davy on it, sir.”


Very well. You can sail with Surprise, then; and she will deliver my officers, passengers and despatches at Portsmouth, then run down to be laid up in Sepping’
s yard, while you return with your passengers in Ringle.

“Very good, sir,”
said Harding, folding the letters away in his bosom. “
So now, since the gentlemen for Portsmouth are already aboard Surprise, I shall ask permission to take my leave and wish you and Suffolk a happy, prosperous voyage. And Doctor, how I hope you and your mate may b ag a brace or two of phoenixes.”

They shook hands and parted.
“There is a fine fellow,” said Jack. “
He can sail the schooner very, very hard indeed: it was the right choice. But I think he was not mistaken when he said they woul d not always lie at their ease.”


It would be ill-natured on my part to suggest that he might be influenced by the certainty, under Providence, of coming back to your blue squadron and acting as tender to the imposing great Suffolk under your command: I shall not say it however, although my lower being does feel exceptionally bad-tempered today. Jack, with your idea you have wholly forestalled me. You spoke of a notion worthy of Newton, but you did not elaborate: and I was only waiting for an opportunity of telling you mine.


Pray do so now, dear Stephen: I am sure it would be more luminous.”


What I was going to say was that you had no idea of the fundamental difference between a mere landlubber and a seaman.”

“Oh was you, indeed?”


You may toss your head in that superior way, but you have never been a mere landlubber.
You were introduced to the ocean as an infant child; you boated before you knew the difference between right and wrong; you went positively to sea under Captain Willis well before puberty. Far from you the wondering calf-like gaze of those who watch the intrepid mariner traverse the tossing deck –
the gaze almost instantly followed by a feeling of unavoidable and certain death, cold death, followed by furious uncontrollable heaves and shameless vomiting, morbid frigor and despair. They, with some slight recovery and even an upright position, the sight of these god-like creatures stalking about the nightmare deck in their uncouth garments, uttering their brutish cries, haling upon ropes great and small –
finding their way by night –
reaching the stated port –
all this reduces the lubber to a state of laudable and permanent humility. No, no, my good sir, you may say what you please, but there is a great gulf fixed between the landlubber –
the landlubber who comes late to things that float –
and the true-born seaman: a gulf as great as that between a sh eep and a seal.”

“Very true,”
said Jack, who had had the training of some of the sheep.

“Now you are to consider,” Stephen went on, “
that my Brigid was not only baptized in sea-water, but dipped before she could walk. When we were ashore she rejoiced in boats, when we were afloat she delighted in heavy sea, never minding in the least when they soaked her through and through –
nimble in the rigging, the darling of the upper-yardmen. She often explains the rigging to me, and I have seen old hands like Tobin nod with approval. No, my dear Jack, what I should have said had you not in essence said it before me, was that one (however young) who has sea-legs, sea-sense and a knowledge both acquired and to some degree as it were instinctive of the sea’
s very nature itself bears down all frippery land -based experience, however old.”


Oh come, Stephen, Charlotte and what’
s her name are not exactly crones. As I remember they only date from the Mauritius campai gn.”


They might have been born with Helen of Troy as far as that is concerned. Aboard, particularly aboard so lithe and eager a vessel as Ringle, Brigid must bear them down; and a just equilibrium will be reached, with mutual respect and no bullying.”

There were many
vantage-points high above the harbour that Jack and Stephen used to climb, once a reasonable period had elapsed, a period in which a well-handled weatherly craft with favourable winds (and as far as could be told they had been favourable) could reasonably be expected to sail out and back; and Stephen had the pleasure of seeing some moderately upland birds and the bizarre mating habits of a colony of variegated scorpions, while the sun passed over the almost invariable translucent sky; but Jack always made his descent to the still fairly active yards (Lord Leyton’
s mainmast footing still gave great trouble) with hope disappointed.

By now
Suffolk wa s in very fine fig, and since Jac k was blessed with an experienced and upon the whole intelligent wardroom, the gun-crews, at least in dumb-show, were as brisk as he could wish while the small-arms men (who could, within limits, fire their pieces) were all well above the average. Her stores were completed –
prime salt beef from the immense ranches, smaller amounts of moderate pork, a remarkably agreeable army biscuit, tobacco in industrial quantities — while for daily use flesh-boats plied to and from the butchers stalls along the quay, and flat-bottomed craft brought fruit and vegetables in unlimited amount. As a peace-maker the Nuncio had worked wonders, though to be sure commercial enterprise had played its part.

“It is only a Friday,”
said Jack, when he and his first lieutenant (he sailed without a flag-captain) had made sure that there was not a becket out of place and that all Suffolk ’
s were present, correctly shaved and provid ed with all that was required. “
It is only a Friday, but I think I shall stroll up well beyond our usual mound with a telescope.
Do you choose to come, Stephen?”


I do, too: we might see some of the first migrants.”

Up and up: fairly easy going now that they were used to the land; and as they rose the horizon increased enormously, the empty horizon, though in with the land there were some lateen-rigged fishermen.

The mound they chose was thinly covered with a sparse herbage in which there grew a small particularly vicious cactus, while in the many bare places the earth showed dull purplish red: a landscape more wholly foreign they had never seen, although they had travelled very, very widely - it was, after all, their calling.

“Dear Lord,”
said Jack, sitting comfortably down, his back to a rock, after a piercing search of the nearer sea and the northern horizon, “
how I long for Woolcombe and the green Woolhampton downs, speckled with sheep. Woolcombe and the soft dew falling: the cawing of rooks. When I was a mere post-captain, you know, and there was this prospect of peace, I used to console myself, particularly when I was solvent again with that dea r prize-money and Cousin Edward’
s land doing so well - I used to console myself with the thought of restoring the place to what it was when I was a boy, before my father lost his head about the Stock Exchange, when we had a pack of hounds and a damned good huntsman and when the water-bailiff kept the streams as neat as a man-of-war: full of trout and the odd salmon on the spring run. Lord, we had such sport, such fun! There was an old hound called Captain, and he always hit off the line afte r a check. ‘Hark to Captain’
we would cry, and they all followed him like a single creature. Lord! How I longed to be back! Now of course I must stand my trick as a flag-officer: and most uncommon lucky I am to have it to do. But I do so long to be back, sometimes, under Hamble Down, showing George how to work out a line. Stephen, you can ha ve no idea how beautiful it is.”

BOOK: 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
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