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Authors: Patrick O'Brian

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‘What is this appalling din?’ snapped a voice behind Peter. ‘Fighting like a lot of snivelling schoolboys? Who is this?’

‘Mr FitzGerald, sir.’

‘New midshipman? The Irish one?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘I might have known it. Well, pour some water over him.’

‘Aye-aye, sir.’

‘We was playing,’ said Ransome, with heavy invention.

‘Playing? Then you—what is that infernal racket? Yes, Settle, what is it?’

‘Beg pardon, sir, but some of the pressed men in the orlop has gone mad, talking foreign and carrying on horrible.’

‘Did you put the Irishmen in separate bays, as I told you?’

‘Yes, sir. But they got out,’ shouted the quarter-master to make himself heard above the mounting volume of furious sound that welled through the grating.

‘Mr Saumarez’ compliments, sir,’ said a ship’s boy from the quarter-deck, ‘and he would be glad of a little less noise.’

‘My compliments to the first lieutenant, and it will be attended to directly.’

‘The Commodore’s compliments, sir,’ said a second messenger, bumping into the first. ‘The port-admiral’s barge is coming alongside, and he would like to hear himself speak.’

‘My duty to the Commodore,’ said the harassed lieutenant, ‘and I will see to it myself.’

‘If you please, sir,’ said Peter, ‘I believe it is my servant. May I go down?’

‘You’ll hear from me, Settle,’ said Mr Dennis, shaking his first distractedly. Then to Peter, ‘Come on, if you can do anything.’

As they reached the orlop they entered an almost tangible hullaballoo; howls and curses in Irish shattered the heavy air, and in the gloom they could see a small band beleaguered in the aftermost bay.

‘Connacht! Connacht!’ came Sean’s voice high above all, as he and four tall Connaughtmen fought off the attacks of a pack of men from Munster and Leinster, while a party from Ulster assaulted both sides indiscriminately.

‘Sean, Sean, for the glory of God,’ cried Peter in Irish, ‘will you stop your murderous noise, and the Commodore asking are there savages in the heart of the ship and the Admiral no less himself advancing in splendour like a king to make us a compliment?’

At the sound of his voice and the tongue that he spoke they all turned to see, and he continued passionately, ‘It is the fine figure we make now to the Saxons, we the most polished and elegant, most ancient of people. Where should the world look for an example if not to us? And the moon-calf Sean shaming us all in the face of the people, his soul to the devil.’

‘Now listen,’ said Sean, scratching the back of his leg and blushing under the blood that flowed from his forehead; but his explanation was lost in Irish cries of ‘Shame,’ and ‘Ignorant peasant,’ and ‘Violent fellow that does be putting a mock
on the nation’; and in the righteous peace that ensued Peter called him aside. ‘What was the trouble?’ he asked.

‘It was some question about the birth of Saint Patrick,’ said Sean. ‘The Munstermen said—faith, I never heard what they said; but they were certainly wrong.’

‘Let them say, let them say: and I tell you this, Sean—and listen, now—if once again you ever do this, I will cast you off and wipe out your name.’ Pushing Sean crossly away, Peter said to Mr Dennis, ‘Sir, I think the trouble is finished. It was a religious disagreement.’

‘Good,’ said the lieutenant, wiping his forehead. ‘You speak the lingo, so tell them from me that the first man to mention a church, or
any
moral subject whatever, will be hanged and lose a month’s pay. Where are those flaming Marines? Oh, here you are at last, Gordon. Now you go back to the cockpit,’ he said, patting Peter’s shoulder, ‘and sit perfectly still. For if there is the least sound from there while the Admiral’s aboard you will every one of you be disrated and finish the commission cleaning the heads.’

Peter made his way back and entered the berth as the Admiral was piped up the side. There were several other midshipmen now, and they were obviously discussing FitzGerald, for they stopped as Peter came in.

‘This is the other Teague,’ said Keppel.

‘My name is not Teague,’ cried Peter. He had had a trying day, and he was in no mood to be joked at.

‘Be calm, Teague,’ said another midshipman, and fell to whistling Lillibullero.

‘Take it easy, Teague,’ said another.

But Peter would not take it easy: he hesitated, trying to quell the wild indignation; but he failed; it possessed him, and with a furious shriek he hurled himself upon his country’s oppressors.

Chapter Four

‘M
Y DEAR PETER,’ SAID MR WALTER, ‘I HAVE ASKED YOU TO
come here because I think it my duty to your father to speak to you seriously. You are not making a good impression, neither you nor your friend.’

‘I know it, sir,’ answered Peter, hanging his head.

‘You are very ignorant of the service, but at least you know that a midshipman’s whole professional future depends on his captain’s report?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Peter, are you quite sure that you are suited for the Navy? Mr Saumarez tells me that you and your friend know no more about the work of a ship than, as he says, a pair of female Barbary apes; and I am sorry to say that the master finds you stupid.’

‘Sir, I am stupid with the master’s questions about navigation: I try very hard, but I can’t find out the answers. I never learnt the mathematics at home, not beyond the Rule of Three.’

‘It is true,’ said the chaplain, shaking his head. ‘I did my best to help your poor father to some knowledge of Euclid, but it was labour lost; though as a Grecian he outpaced us all.’

‘And as for knowing nothing about the sea,’ cried Peter, red with the humiliating recollection; ‘it is
not
fair, indeed it is not.’

‘Quietly, quietly.’

‘I beg pardon, but it is not. I can sail a boat with any of them and ’tis I can put a curragh through the surf at Ballynasaggart
and it roaring as high as the church. Only I do not know the names of the things in English, so they think me a fool and a landsman.’

‘Have you tried to improve your knowledge of the English sea terms?’

‘Sure the Dear knows I have—’

‘Say “Yes, sir”.’

‘Yes, sir. It was only yesterday FitzGerald and I were in the beakhead asking some of the men—’

‘At the time of that distressing scene with the Commodore?’ said Mr Walter, frowning, and Peter nodded.

‘Tell me exactly what happened. I heard only the words on the quarter-deck.’

‘Well, sir, we had been asking these men the names of the rigging and I had thought for some time that they were gammoning FitzGerald. One said, “And that is the mainbrace. Do you see how badly it wants splicing?”

‘“Where?” says FitzGerald.

‘“There,” says another. “It needs a good splice, but we don’t like to say it. The captain has let it slip out of his mind, and with the first puff of wind the mast will come down.”

‘“He would be very grateful for being reminded,” says the first one, “but we daren’t go aft, being only ratings, you see.”

‘“How very glad he would be,” says another. “Why, it might be the saving of the ship.” And before I could say anything FitzGerald was gone.’

‘Yes,’ said the chaplain, ‘and with a bow—quite out of place—he said to the Commodore, “By your leave, sir, the men up at the sharp end of the boat consider that the main-brace needs splicing.” It was a very shocking piece of effrontery, and although the Commodore passed it off as being accountable to your friend’s inexperience, I really thought Mr Saumarez would have him confined. I understand that Mr FitzGerald enjoys the highest protection; but if he thinks that that will allow him to take liberties with Mr Anson, he is wrong. Mr Anson is not the kind of man to be influenced by such a consideration for a moment. By the by, who were the
men who led him to such a monstrous impertinence?’

‘I could not say, sir, I am sure,’ said Peter, with a glazed look coming over his face. ‘All I remember is that they left the beakhead very suddenly when FitzGerald went aft.’

‘Hm. Quite so,’ said the chaplain. ‘But now I am on the subject, my boy, I must tell you that this friendship of yours makes me very uneasy. As I take it, he borrowed an important share of the money I brought you?’

‘Yes, sir; we went snacks. But he bore my charges all the way here. He would have done the same thing for me.’

‘And then there was that very discreditable affair with Ransome.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said Peter uneasily.

‘It appears that your friend still bears malice.’ Peter was silent. ‘And if that is the case, he is not playing a gentleman’s part.’

Peter was still silent. He was keenly aware of the strong disapproval that surrounded them in the midshipmen’s berth—a disapprobation that extended to him, because although he could not feel that FitzGerald was right, yet he could not possibly not take his part.

‘I may have heard a distorted account,’ said the chaplain, ‘but from what I have gathered, he insulted Ransome with his birth and Ransome knocked him down. I would have done the same. And now he has not the good feeling to make his apology.’

‘It was not quite like that, sir,’ said Peter. ‘He did truly think Ransome was a servant: I thought he was a seaman myself. We neither of us knew that midshipmen were so old and big. FitzGerald did not intend to insult him, and indeed afterwards he said he would have cut his tongue out rather than say it. He said he meant to express his regret, only it was so difficult. He said, “How can I go to the fellow and tell him I am sorry I mistook him for a servant or a common seaman when he has been one in fact—the apology would be worse than the offence.” But since then the others have been so unpleasant that he has got on his high horse, and whatever I say only makes it worse.’

‘It is bad blood. He has only to go to Ransome and candidly admit that he was wrong. Ransome is a very fine fellow: he behaved extremely well on the lower-deck: he is an excellent seaman and he has a courage that Homer would have mentioned with honour: Mr Anson made him his own coxswain, and then, to reward his merit, rated him midshipman. If I thought your friend had a tithe of Ransome’s merit, I should feel very much happier for you, Peter. Life is not very pleasant for Ransome: there are many of his former shipmates aboard, and it is the nature of low minds to grudge at another’s rise—I do not say that they do, mark you; but I believe he feels his position acutely, far more acutely than ever he need. Certainly there is not a gentleman aboard, not one in the squadron, who would have thrown his origin in his teeth, or who, having done so by inadvertence, would not have apologised in the most full and public manner. No, no. It is very bad, and by associating with Mr FitzGerald you are tarred with the same brush. Believe me, my boy, the Commodore is not a man to be trifled with. He is unceasingly engrossed with the business of preparing the squadron for sea; he has a thousand cares of which you can know nothing—you may have heard, however, of the criminal decision about the invalids?’

Peter nodded. The squadron was undermanned: seamen could not be had, nor soldiers for the military side, and it was said that Government intended to fill out the numbers with pensioners from the Royal Hospital at Chelsea.

‘You have? Well, that is but one of a thousand matters that call for his instant attention. But for all that he knows that his prime duty as captain of the
Centurion
is the welfare of the ship and her company, and he is certainly informed of all that happens aboard. What kind of opinion will he have of you, Peter? Not only because of this unsuitable friendship, but because of the innumerable scrapes you have got yourself into from the moment you arrived. Do not think to shelter behind my frail protection. I am a very unimportant person here, although Mr Anson honours me with his friendship. But if I were a flag-officer and the Commodore’s own brother, that would avail you nothing if he were to judge you unfit for the
service. I put this to you very seriously, Peter; and I put it to you urgently, because at dinner yesterday he mentioned your name: I did not hear what he said; but he mentioned your name.’

Peter walked soberly away. He wanted to think: but in a ship filled with more than four hundred men, all of them active in one way or another, it is not easy to find a place for quiet meditation. He was wondering whether he might presume to go into the tops, or whether that might be a crime, when he heard his name. It was far off, and mixed with a jumble of sound, but one catches one’s name very quickly. ‘Mr Palafox. Pass the word for Mr Palafox.’ Then another voice, a little nearer, and another. His name, shouted, followed him up the ship, growing vastly in sound, and he hurried aft to report himself. But before he reached the quarterdeck he ran into the Commodore’s steward.

‘Wait a minute, young gentleman,’ said the steward. ‘What’s the hurry?’

‘The Commodore has passed the word for me,’ said Peter, trying to get by. ‘I must run.’

‘You can save your breath, sir,’ said the steward, ‘for I am on the same errand. The Commodore sends his compliments to Mr Palafox and would be glad of his company at dinner today: he regrets the short notice.’

‘My compliments to—to the Commodore,’ said Peter, suddenly ill with apprehension, for dinner was no distance away at all, ‘and I shall be most happy.’

He dashed into the midshipmen’s berth and forward to the odd, dark kind of cupboard against the jear-capstan casing where he and FitzGerald slung their hammocks. He flung off his coat and rummaged wildly among his possessions in the brass-bound sea-chest, found a clean shirt and his best new coat. He dressed with particular care, but it took longer than he thought, for in his haste he was clumsy, and he was still wrestling with a cross-grained buckle when he heard the ship’s bell go ‘One-two, one-two, one’. Certain that he must have miscounted he shouted into the berth, ‘That was four bells, wasn’t it?’

‘Why?’ asked a voice.

‘I have to dine with the Commodore,’ said Peter, forgetting their dislike in his hurry. He emerged, buttoning his coat.

‘It was five bells. You will be late,’ said Elliot coldly.

‘Still, he can’t go like that,’ said Hope. ‘You’ve forgotten your dirk and you’ve trailed your coat in the dust. Here, stand while I get it off you.’

Keppel fetched his dirk and Peter buckled it on while Hope brushed his back. It was kindly done, and although he had barely time to gasp out a thank you before he raced away aft, Peter felt a strong pleasure from it.

‘They could have been wicked,’ he thought: but this reflection was instantly effaced by the sight of the first lieutenant at the half-deck. Mr Saunders looked over him quickly. ‘That will do,’ he said, nodding. ‘Come along.’

It was a defect in Peter’s upbringing that he had rarely, almost never, been used to paying formal visits or to dining out; but it was an unavoidable defect, for not only were his parents too poor to entertain, but in the neighbourhood for fifteen miles around there was nobody to entertain. Lord Magher, who owned a vast tract of land that included Ballynasaggart and seven villages beside, had never even seen his Irish estate; his agent, a Scotch Presbyterian, had alienated the Reverend Mr Palafox by his rigid treatment of the tenants; the squireen of Connveagh was a disreputable creature, permanently drunk and of more than doubtful loyalty; and of the two livings that bounded the parish, one was held by a rich pluralist in Dublin and the other by a clergyman even poorer than Mr Palafox and with a family that outnumbered his by four. It is not to be wondered at, therefore, that at first Peter saw little of the noble stateroom, its gleaming cloth and silver, and the decanters glowing in the sun that came pouring through the great stern-gallery. He had a vague impression of being greeted by an expanse of buff waistcoat and a blue coat afire with gold, of being introduced to various people, and then he was sitting down before his plate and scalding his mouth cruelly with boiling soup.

But he neither dropped his spoon nor hurled his plate into
his lap, and in time he began to take more notice of his surroundings. At the head of the table sat Mr Anson: he was a broad, strongly-built man with a fine head, a Roman face accustomed to command: at the moment he was listening to an anecdote of Marlborough’s wars with an expression of polite interest, but his face was tired, and a man who knew him well could have told that his mind was far away. The speaker, on the Commodore’s right hand, was Colonel Cracherode, commanding the land forces: Peter had seen him before. There was another red coat farther down the table—a young officer of the Marines, who was as rigid with awe as Peter, but who, to keep himself in countenance, fiddled incessantly with the stem of his wine-glass and drank such a very large quantity that by the first remove his face was as red as his coat. Next to him was the captain of the
Wager
, one of the ships of the squadron, and opposite Peter one of the
Wager
’s midshipmen, Mr Byron. Mr Saunders, first lieutenant of the
Centurion
, sat at the farther end.

The Commodore had a French cook on board: the food was excellent—quite unlike the usual fare of midshipmen—and Peter was beginning to enjoy himself in a quiet way when his peace of mind was shattered by his captain’s voice.

‘Mr Palafox,’ said the Commodore, ‘a glass of wine with you.’

Peter bowed and drank to him: he neither choked nor spilt his wine, but now he felt that his security was gone—he might be spoken to and called upon to reply at any moment. His forebodings were right. His neighbour, a post-captain, turned to him and said, ‘Palafox? I know that name. Yes. It was in the year ’21 that Miss Dillon married a gentleman called Palafox, in spite of all that I could say. I was first of the Falkland then and thought no small beer of myself; but the parson carried away the prize.’

‘That was my mother, sir,’ cried Peter.

‘Indeed? Indeed?’ said the captain, looking at him with lively interest. ‘Then when next you see her, pray mention my name with—what would be proper?—with my kindest regards,
and tell your father that I still bear him an undying grudge. I trust they are both very well?’

‘Thank you, sir, very well indeed.’

‘And where do you live now? I seem to remember that your father had a living somewhere on the west coast. Bally—’

‘Ballynasaggart.’

‘That was the place. So he is still there. I know just where it is, although I could not precisely recall the name. Terrible great seas, and the current sets inshore round the headland. An ugly place to be caught on a lee-shore with a westerly gale and the tide making.’

‘Is that by the Blaskets?’ asked Captain Kidd of the
Wager
, across the table. ‘I was wrecked there once.’

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