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 (8 page)

BOOK: 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
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Suffolk

s timbers –
a broadside rolling, but only just rolling.


Target's away,”
h ailed the foretopmast lookout. “
On deck, there, target’s away”

“From forward aft as she bears,”
called Jack; and there was a long, tense silence, broken only by the gentle wind in the rigging. The little girls, in white frocks, stood on tip-toe: just behind them Sophie and Christine, almost equally tense. The captain of Number One glared along his sights, the lanyard in his right hand, his left making very slight delicate motions to swivel or elevate the huge gun-barrel right or left, up or down a trifle. “Fire!”
he cried and heaved on the lanyard: the hammer shot forward and with barely a perceptible pause the gun uttered its prodigious roar, a great jet of smoke and flame enveloping the cannon-ball and the gun-carriage and cannon raced inboard with a screech of trunions under the arched bodies of the crew until the whole was brought up short with a great twang of the tackles; but already there were immensely active hands cleaning any smouldering remnants from the gun, swabbing the barrel, ramming down the next charge of powder, then the ball, then the wads, well thumped down, the crew barely pausing for breath but running the whole mass up against the side with a crash, where the gun-captain pricked and primed his cock, unmoved by the truly appalling discharge of his right-hand neighbour as he and his mates made all fast and levelled the warm gun again.

The firing
went clean down the battleship’
s side at a fine even pace, and even the aftermost piece had its shot at the frail remnant that drifted by. But by then the little girls had almost no voice to screech with nor even the emotional power to do so: the enormous and repeated din, the vibration of the ship and the air, the great flashes and the dense clouds of smoke drifting away to leeward had overpowered them; and the near-stupefaction of their elders was very impressive too. Sophie had seen sloops and moderate frigates at gun-exercise, but never a ship of the line, and she was quite remarkably perturbed, not only by the unconscio n able din but infinitely more by the reflection that this was what his profession inflicted upon her husband: or at least the way of life to whi ch it exposed him. Christine, to be sure, had fired many and many a fowling-piece and even upon occasion a rifled gun, but nothing imaginably on this scale, and she rema ined quite mute, holding Brigid’
s hand, until after a good deal of calling-out ri ght forward the cry came down, “On deck, on deck there. Target’
s away, sir.”

So it was, a great long affair of all kinds of old casks and nameless objects from the entire squadron clapped together and furnished with enough cloth of a sort to carry the whole downwind. The target appeared on the starboard bow, towed by boats that cast off as soon as it was well on cours e. An active intelligent master’
s mate ran down the broadside: “
No fire until the Admiral gives the word: then count two between each shot.”

A profound silence: the target drifted halfway down the Suffolk ’
s length.
“Fire,”
said Jack.

The first gun and before it quite ran in the second and so clear along down to the last: and when the smoke cleared and the last repeated echo died away there was nothing but tossing water to be seen. The little girls had strength enough to utter a last gasping ‘Oh,’
and then they were led away, exhausted: but not before a furious Killick had appeared on the quarter deck waving a full-dress coat. “
Which I had it all laid out a quarter of an hour long past. Ain't you got . . .” He was going to say ‘
no shame?’
but disapproving looks, coupled with J
ack’
s compliance and a call for the barge checked his zeal.

With a following breeze and a very well-inclined crew the barge fairly skimmed across the sea, hooking on only a matter of seconds late. In any case Lord Leyton was in a good mood –
he could be jovial and he could be damned crabbed: but this was a good day.
He had heard much of Dr Maturin’
s acquaintance, close acquaintance, with Prince William, wh o, in view of his elder brother’
s constitution, was likely to be king in the early foreseeable future.

Well, Aubrey”
he cried giving his guest a hand as he came aboard, “
you very nearly split the heavens with that damned great rolling broadside –
God’
s my life, thunder and lightn ing was nothing to compare. Don’
t I wish you may not have started more than a dozen of your timbers, ha, ha, ha! And don't I wish you may have come by your powder honestly, ha, ha, ha, ha! Allow me to present my young cousin Ran dolph Miller”
— beckoning to a soldier in regimentals, smiling just behind him. “
But of course you know him already, you are neighbours in the country.”

“How do you do, sir?” said Jack, accepting Miller’
s proffered hand.


And this, sir, is Dr Maturin, I presume?” said Lord Leyton. “
How kind of you to come. I have had a particular desire to meet you ever since the Duke of Clarence told me you were a most uncommonly learned man. I am not particularly learned myself, but I love to surround myself with those that are. May I introduce you to Captain Miller, my cousin Randolph –
but now I come to reflect, perhaps a Doctor of

Medicine takes r
ank over a simple soldier . . .”


Not at all, my lord: but it so happens that we were at Trinity at much the same time , so I already have that honour.”


Indeed he was: Trinity College, Dublin. Well then, if he too were at Trinity, then he too is one of the learned - it stands to reason. And I dare say he can split an infinitive as quick as any man. But may I introduce . . .”

Presently
they were called to the Admiral’
s truly splendid dining-cabin, which could seat ten people easily, each with a servant behind his chair and plenty of room for those who came hurrying in with dishes and tureens, sauceboats, trays of bread and of course very large quantities of wine –
a grateful Sancerre with the bonito, an Haut-Brion with the admirable duck and an ancient burgundy with the roast beef: unhappily it was corked. The chaplain on Stephen’
s right murmured something about ‘
a q uaint reminiscence of antiquity’
and Jack did not empty his glass; but their host took no notice of his formal first sip and none of his officers showed any sign of awareness. ‘Stoicism?’ asked Stephen privately. ‘
Dislike of offending the great man?
D
iscipline? Stark insensibility?’

When it came to the port, however, the case was altered: all hands, including the parson, drank eagerly; and when they reached the loyal toast there was no man who did not drain his brimming glass and murmur, ‘God bless him,’
with real feeling, and emptied it.

After
this ceremony and the chaplain’
s grace, Lord Leyton observed that although the glass was sinking it was still quite a fine afternoon, and some of them might like to take their coffee, and perhaps some brandy, on deck.
There were general sounds of agreement, a general movement, though with due regard for precedence, and the Admiral keeping Jack by his side until the room was free, said, in answer to h is thanks and congratulations, “
Not at all, not at all, my dear fellow - a very simple little feast: though I must admit that they have capital beef in these part. But did you noti ce anything about the burgundy?”

“No, sir: capital wine.”


Well, I am glad of that. For a moment I thought –
but, however, what I wanted to tell you before coffee was that I should like you to weigh on the ebb and to proceed to Saint Helena under a very easy sail and there to wait in that damned uneasy roadstead until you see me plain. Then you must weigh and carry on for the Cape: there is not room for all three squadrons to lie there safely together in a strong sou’
wester.
But that will already make a very impre ssive show of force, I believe.”

“Certainly, sir.”


And then I should like you to take my nephew along with you. As you may know, he has been given an appointment at the Cape, and the sooner he is there the better –
you might even lend him your tender for the last few days, if the wind drops, as it so often does as you approach the coast. Now let us hurry on deck, before all those God-damned sol diers have drunk all the brandy.”

On deck Captain Miller at
once came up to Jack and said, “
Sir, I hear with great pleasure that Mrs Aubrey and Mrs Wood are both aboard you, and that perhaps we may be shipmates far as the Cape. Allow me to fetch you a glass of brandy .”
Coming back with the glass in his hand he cried, “
My dear cousin has just told me that you will be so very kind as to take me with you. Thank you very much indeed. I did myself the pleasure of waiting on Mr Heatherleigh when he and his sister –
whom I already knew and admired from my days in Sierra Leone –
were settling at Medenham; and later I called on Mrs Aubrey and Mrs Wood at Woolcombe when you were still at sea –
I must congratulate you on your children, sir.”

Jack looked at him with some surprise. Their degree of acquaintance did not warrant anything like this familiarity . ‘Has the man drunk too much?’
he wondered inwardly: aloud he said, “
Forgive me, if you

please,”
and walked across the deck to where Dr Maturin was listening sullenly to Lord Leyton’
s harangue –
his detailed explanation of how he was going to tell Napoleon how he could have avoided defeat at Waterloo.

“Aubrey”
cried Leyton, turning, “
cannot you persuade or even order Dr Maturin to stay while I have my interview with the Emperor — with General Bonaparte , I should say? I can read the French pretty well, with a dictionary at hand, but I cannot speak it with anything like the Doctor’s fluency’

“Oh come, my lord,” said Stephen, “
what you say sounds very like the French of the northern provinces: and I do assure you I have patients aboard to whom I owe my first duty, to say nothing of what awaits me at the Cape.”

“My lord,” said Jack, “even an Admiral cannot overrule a medical man – it is in the Articles of War – and even if he could he would have no success with Maturin. You may turn a bear from his vomit, but I do solemnly affirm that ten bears of the largest size could not deter Maturin from what he thought right. And I do assure you, my lord, that we have some people on the sick-list in a very parlous state.”

“How do you mean,
parlous .”

“ Well, my lord, nip and tuck as you might say, or touch and go. And it is my impression that as soon as his assistant, Dr Jacob, comes aboard he means to operate on a strangled hernia.”

“A twisting of the guts, my lord. The poor soul, swelling above because his shipmates feed him twice at every meal, and the stricture below: the patient is a sailmaker’s mate.”

“Well, I am sorry for him, but I am sure to have nothing to recommend but a double handful of small-shot followed by a pint of caster oil. Yet, it really is a medical business and I shall certainly leave it to them. Would it be a very bloody affair.”

“Shockingly so, I fear: though with clip and swab we will try to diminish the flow.”

“I might mention it to Miller: he walking miles to see the castrating of lamb and bullock – geldings for that matter.” The Admiral then gazed up at the taut sails with unmoved pleasure. “Now with it getting something like the full Trades, clear of the land and its turbulences , we can form the squadron into sailing order and prepare to depart.”
At this he sent his guests back to their ships in the rudest manner.

“ Here is my reefer,” said Jack, “and the barge is along side. I thank you very heartily indeed for your hospitality, and I shall most willingly carry your nephew to the Cape. Good day to you my lord. Come, Stephen.”

An Admiral’s barge, though spacious, is still a public place and they said little as they returned to the ship.

Truly, once
they had sunk the land it was the purest sailing: nearly 300 miles in the first day, never touching tack nor sheet, and even the Suffolk kept in splendidly. How they missed their keenest navigators Hansen and Daniel, who would so have loved drawing the almost purely straight lines cutting the parallels at even angles. But how they rejoiced their occasional northern albatross, the not infrequent whales, the almost steady companionship of quite a large variety of sharks and even rays!

Jack noticed the twins began to grow rather offensively knowledgeable about sea-going affairs: but Padeen, though his English remained strange, incorrect and largely incomprehensible for the finer forms, managed to keep them within bounds; and what he could not do, Brigid did. It did not make them very pleasant companions but it rendered them tolerable; and the southern coast of Africa and the Portuguese possessions came daily nearer.

Miller, who called on the ladies almost every day to suggest piquet or backgammon (with little success upon the whole) was much excited by the prospect of Loando, and he climbed as far as he dared to catch a first glimpse of the shore – conceivably a symbol of power, status and indeed perhaps marriage. However, all the bright morning light allowed was a sullen dimness on the western horizon.

The ship continued its ordered routine with soundings, very exact observation of the sun; moon when it rose, planets and a wonderfully timely eclipse of one of Jupiter’s satellites gave them their time to the minute, or even less.

“Now it can come hell or high water,” said Harding, the Suffolk’s first lieutenant and a prime astronomer. “Now you know exactly where we are.”

He said this in the presence of Admiral Aubrey (no mean astronomer himself) who shook his head at the words; so did everyone else in the chartroom, sometimes imperceptibly. But imperceptibly or not, within seconds the sky split with a most enormous roar – so prodigious that the twins, well accustomed to gentler weather rushed shrieking to their mother’s bed.

All night it bellowed and thundered. St. Elmo’s Fire appeared on three separate masts and the bowsprit. Three staysails were blown out of their bolt-ropes in the first shock, and the foretopgallant. With infinite pains, on a deck that never for a moment stopped throwing itself about in the most extravagant manner, they stowed all that could be stowed and then turned to the pump for the very serious mass of water below: and to plain swab and bucket for the knees-deep wet that washed from side to side in the sick-berth, the captain’s cabin and the lieutenant’s storeroom.

A heavy night, with nothing to eat but wet biscuit and rum; but it did clear before dawn and rising sun showed not only a beautiful day, but the coast of Loando with its town and its bay. The sea was still grievously troubled and there were a half dozen fishing boats at least half wrecked or worse. The South African squadron as a whole had lain to very early in the night – their topsails were above he horizon – so Suffolk picked up the fishermen, and towing their boats carried them into Loando, having signalled his intentions to the squadron.

They were most lovingly received – many of the fishermen were relatives – and they were feasted (though at short notice) in the most splendid manner, which as far as the exhausted hands were concerned, went down very well indeed. The Admiral commanding the squadron was housed in a rapidly brushed Governor’s mansion: the nominal white squadron had no flag officer of its own but Jack, who was after all a Rear Admiral of the blue, lived with all his family and senior officers in the former military command, next to a still not inconsiderable barracks.

In spite of the shortness of the storm, the ships had suffered extremely and the Admiral, Jack and the other captains were almost perpetually in the well equipped and capable dockage. One day, as they were coming back the Governor’s house – a shingle strand with singular coconut palms and their usual birds – Stephen met them and the Admiral asked after his hernia.

“Thank you, sir” said Stephen, “he has shown the most remarkable improvement and I think I shall operate in the next few days, now that Jacob is returned. Perhaps I shall mention it to Captain Miller.”

“Yes, indeed: he loves medical matters. But it is not particularly bloody, is it.”

“Oh, no, nothing like an amputation. You open intelligently and you are on the job at one.”

“Well, in that case it would be very kind of you, I am sure.”

Stephen carried on to the military headquarters and walking in he found Miller already there, not to his surprise as it was an almost daily occurrence, but surprising in the way the bunches of flowers had increased and in Christine’s marked unfavourable expression.

“Oh, Captain Miller,” he said, accompanying him to the door, “I happened to tell the Admiral that I was probably operating on a favourable hernia tomorrow. Should you like to attend?”

“Is it a bloody operation?”

“Oh no, not what one should really call bloody. If your first incision is badly mistaken it can be somewhat distressing, but we do not usually mistake.”

“I am sure you do not. But if I may, I will excuse myself for this occasion, though with many thanks for your polite attention. Good day to you sir.”

“Stephen, my dear,” said Christine, “I am afraid I must beg you to tell that man not to call unless he is invited. He is becoming quite a nuisance – a wonderfully confident nuisance. He spent a long time talking to me through all these flowers and telling me that when he had taken up his appointed position at the Cape, and w hen he had married to a woman he had chosen, there would be virtually nobody in the colony to compete with him in wealth and influence. I have met with some fools in my life, even some god-dammed fools, and a good many of them; but I have never met with such a confident ass as Miller: I suppose he is completely blinded by his position, appointment, and I dare say wealth, as well as gross stupidity. Stephen, please get me rid of him. He is making me ridiculous as well as himself.”

“My dear, I shall attend to it.”

It was as soon as the South African squadron was fit to sail that the Admiral ordered them to sea, there to carry out a very considerable great gun exercise fairly close inshore to please their Portuguese friends. The last preparations had not yet taken place before Stephen Maturin met Captain Miller. “Oh Captain Miller,” he said, stepping aside and detaching himself from his friends. “I have a message for you (lowering his voice), Mrs Wood begs you will not call again without an invitation.” Miller could not at first grasp his meaning, though his complacent smile did fade. Stephen repeated his words.

“It is not true,” cried Miller. “Christine never said that.”

“I assure you those were her words.”

“They were not!”

“You give me the lie?” asked Stephen, very low, approaching his face.

“Yes,” cried Miller, and struck him hard.

“You will appoint your friends,” said Stephen. “These gentlemen” – nodding towards Harding , and Jacob who had rejoined a little after midnight – “will look after my interests. Good day to you sir, until early tomorrow morning.” He touched his hat and walked on.

Harding was obliged to leave them to buy some particularly choice handkerchiefs for his wife; and Stephen said, “Oh my dear Jacob, how sorry I am to entangle you with that silly little affair, even before you have answered half my questions on your most admirable report on the Argentine. Shall we have time for a small, well planned, uncomplicated hernia before going deeply into politics? I shall have to get word off to Sir Joseph directly since we must sail early tomorrow afternoon.”

“I should
imagine so – a really healthy, lean patient with a simple hernia is no great matter, and I have already coded the essence of my report. And a simple affair of this kind, a blow given and resented, is no great matter either: small enough on the level ground behind the groyne, a little after sunrise, with a stretcher, his man and a local surgeon. You expect no serious injury?”

“No, a pierced shoulder at the most.”

“Very well, let us look at our patient and perhaps operate at once, even at the cost of landing him until the exercise is over.”

In fact, although the operation went perfectly well, the man, Haynes, was landed at the Admirals particular request on these grounds: first, that it stood to reason that some gun or other would burst or overset; and second, that the roaring of broadsides would arouse his feeling and excite the blood; whereas on shore he would be perfectly calm and rest under Mrs Aubrey’s and Mrs Wood’s care.

But the Admiral was worried, very much worried, by his nephew’s absence in the morning, and by the rumour, brought by the Admiral’s secretary that Miller had flatly refused to fight with swords. He would pistol or he would not fight. Maturin’s seconds would have none of it: it was their principal who had been struck – it was he who chose the weapons. That was always the case: it always had been the case. It was the Law of Moses.

“Of course it is,” said the Admiral. “I always preferred the gentleman’s weapon when I went out: except when I was the aggressor and had to take the other mans choice. Pray, Mr Martin,” he went on, “pray run out and see if you can catch them. Tell him privately from me that if he don’t fight he is disgraced forever and can expect no notice from me – nor from the Ministry. And tell him a sword wound given by a reasonably decent creature is not so wicked, particularly if you dress it with Marshmallow and Heartsease.”

On the field, from which the few venal onlookers had been shooed with appalling violence, the scene was only just not ridiculous. Miller had been urged forward by his seconds and he kept telling them that it was perfectly unfair – he knew everything about pistols: he would meet any man with a pistol. But he knew nothing about swords. They, shamefaced, kept telling him it was the law of the duel. He could either apologise on his knees, accepting any terms that his adversary saw fit to impose, or he must fight.
There was no two ways about it. Mr Martin whispered into his ear, “
Y
our uncle will not speak to you if you do not fight.”

They thrust a sword into his hand; pointed towards that of his adversary. The chief second held them on his outstretched blade, cried “Gentleman, engage,” and strode back. Two, three or even four clashes and Miller’s flew into the air, it landing between them. Stephen put his foot on it and his sword point against Miller’s throat. “Do you withdraw?” he asked. “Miller, do you withdraw your words entirely?”

“I do, entirely.”

“Yes? Then we have said enough. Good day to you gentleman; and I thank you heartily for your presence.”

“He shocked all with a set of tarts,” said Wainwright into Killick’s eager ear. He was Miller’s servant and he cordially disliked his master: but he was a child and grandchild of Caxley House and he had learnt to express himself in gentler expressions – not that these had any currency whatsoever with Killick or nine tenths of the lower deck.

BOOK: 21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
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