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Authors: Patrick O'Brian

The Thirteen Gun Salute

BOOK: The Thirteen Gun Salute
The Thirteen Gun Salute
Patrick O'Brian


The Thirteen Gun Salute

W.W. Norton & Company

New York * London

Chapter 1

In spite of the hurry, many wives and many sweethearts had come to see the ship off, and those members of her company who were not taken up with sailing her on her difficult course close-hauled to the brisk south-east breeze, watched the white flutter of their handkerchiefs far across the water until Black Point hid them entirely, shut them right out.

The married men on the quarterdeck of the Surprise stepped back from the rail with a sigh and clapped their telescopes to. They were all sincerely attached to their wives, and they all - Jack Aubrey, her commander, Captain Pullings, a volunteer acting as his first lieutenant, Stephen Maturin, her surgeon, and Nathaniel Martin, his assistant - they all regretted the parting extremely. Yet it so happened that from a variety of official delays and other causes they had all had an unusually long spell of domesticity; some had found their consequence much reduced by the coming of a baby; others had suffered from occasional differences of opinion, from relatives by marriage, smoking chimneys, leaks in the roof, rates, taxes, the social round, insubordination; and turning they now looked to the clear south-west, the light-blue sky with a fleet of white rounded clouds marching over it in the right direction, the darker blue sea drawn to a tight line high on the horizon, and beyond that horizon endless possibilities even now, in spite of their late and inauspicious start.

It would be an absurd exaggeration to speak of a feeling of escape or holiday; but underlying the regret there was a sense of a return to a simpler world, one in which the roof, or what passed for it, was not expected to be universally waterproof, where chimneys and the poor-rate amounted to little, where a settled hierarchy, independent of moral or intellectual merit, did away if not with difference of opinion then at least with its more candid expression, a world in which there were no morning calls and in which servants could not give notice; a world devoid of most comforts, complex enough in all conscience, and not without its dangers, yet one whose complexity was as who should say more direct, less infinitely various; and above all a world that they were used to. Jack Aubrey, by a mere count of days, must have spent more time afloat than ashore; and if the formative years of his youth were given greater value, an impartial observer might have set him down as nine-tenths marine, particularly as his strongest emotions had all been known at sea. To be sure, love and an encounter with the law at its most unjust had marked him deeply by land, but these feelings, powerful though they were, could not equal those he had known as a sailor in number or intensity. Quite apart from the extreme perils of storm and shipwreck natural to his calling, he had fought in more great fleet battles and in more single-ship actions than most officers of his time. He had boarded many and many an enemy and it was at these times that he felt most wholly alive. Ordinarily he was not at all aggressive - a cheerful, sanguine, friendly, good-natured creature, severe only in the event of bad seamanship - but when he was on a Frenchman's deck, sword in hand, he felt a wild and savage joy, a fulness of being, like no other; and he remembered every detail of blows given or received, every detail of the whole engagement, with the most vivid clarity.

In this he was quite unlike his friend Maturin, who disliked violence and who took no pleasure in any battle whatsoever. When he was obliged to fight he did so with a cold efficiency, but never without an apprehension that had continually to be mastered, disliking both the occasion and the recollection of it.

Martin, the surgeon's mate, was no berserker either, perhaps in part because he was a clergyman (though unbeneficed and for this occasion 'unreverend' too, since he had left his cloth behind for the voyage, the immensely long voyage, perhaps a circumnavigation, sailing as Maturin's assistant) but quite certainly because he could feel no anger, no fighting anger, until he had been seriously attacked, and not a very great deal even then - only a wild, indignant sense of defence. Indeed there were probably as many attitudes towards battle in the ship as there were men, and as many kinds of courage; yet though the variation might run from Awkward Davis's dark lethal subhuman fury to Barret Bonden's simple delight in the excitement, the immense excitement, there was nobody aboard the Surprise who could possibly have been called shy. With very few exceptions they were all professional fighting seamen. Some had originally come from blue-water privateers, some from inshore smugglers and some from men-of-war; but they were a hand-picked crew (because of his peculiar circumstances Jack Aubrey had had his choice of large numbers) and now they had been together long enough, with a good deal of foul weather and some very hard fighting, to have formed a distinct community with a great sense of their ship and a great pride in her.

A somewhat anomalous community however in a ship that looked so very like a man-of-war, for not only did it contain no Marines, no uniformed officers and no midshipmen, but people walked about at ease, even with their hands in their pockets; there was a certain amount of laughter in the forecastle in spite of the parting; and the quartermaster at the con, wiping a tear from his cheek and shaking his grey head, did not scruple to address Jack directly: 'I shall never see her like again, sir. The loveliest young woman in Shelmerston.'

'A lovely young woman indeed, Heaven,' said Jack. 'Mrs Heaven, if I do not mistake?'

'Why, sir, in a manner of speaking: but some might say more on the porcupine-lay, the roving-line, if you understand me.'

'There is a great deal to be said for porcupines, Heaven: Solomon had a thousand, and Solomon knew what o'clock it was, I believe. You will certainly see her again.'

But the Surprise herself was anomalous too. Although she looked so very like a King's ship she was in fact only a letter of marque, a private man-of-war licensed to cruise upon the enemy; yet she was no ordinary letter of marque either, since government was paying her expenses to go to the South Seas, there to harry the French and American whalers and fur-traders and any enemy war-ship that might be within her capacity. This would normally have brought her much nearer the status of one of His Majesty's hired vessels, particularly as her people were exempted from impressment; but it so happened that the administration's real aim was to enable Dr Maturin to look into the possibility of independent states arising in Chile and Peru- of their being helped to arise - thus weakening the Spanish empire. Since Spain was at this time England's ally the aim could not possibly be avowed, nor the payments, nor indeed anything to do with the whole potentially embarrassing affair.

This however did not worry the Surprises to the least degree. The hands knew that they had their precious exemption and that they had succeeded in remaining on the books, the highly selective books, of the most extraordinarily successful privateer afloat, one whose recent list of prizes had enabled even the humblest seamen she carried to play ducks and drakes with gold pieces if they chose. Several of them and several of their shipmates had so chosen throughout the unexpectedly long period of refitting before the South American voyage, and they were now paupers once more, though very cheerful paupers, since what had happened before might very well happen again - was almost certain to happen again - and even a short cruise, let alone one into the South Sea, might bring Captain Aubrey back with so many prizes at his tail that the port of Shelmerston would be choked for the second time.

Yet rather more of them, particularly the two- and two-and-a-half-share hands, had listened to their captain's advice. Captam Aubrey was remarkably good at giving financial advice: he cried up thrift, caution, small returns (the Navy Five per cents were the very utmost limit of what he would approve), perpetual vigilance and strict economy. It was known through- out the maritime world that although Lucky Jack Aubrey had quite certainly earned his nickname at sea, making at least three fortunes before the last astonishing stroke, he had also been spectacularly unfortunate by land. At certain periods he had been extravagant, maintaining a racing stable and cutting a figure at Brooks's; at others he had been credulous, believing in projectors and their schemes; and generally speaking disaster had attended upon his undertakings. It was therefore perfectly clear to an objective eye that no one had less right to give advice. Yet among seamen, Aubrey's handling of a ship, his behaviour when he brought that ship into action, his list of victories and his list of prizes outweighed a certain want of practical management; and his words, always very kindly intended, always adapted to the means and the understanding of his hearers, had great influence, rather as Tom Cribb's on a point of foreign politics might have done, and some of the Surprises, all of them married men with children, retired from the sea. But none, except a sailmaker's mate who was married to the daughter and sole heiress of a carrier, had retired very far, and the seven new inns or ale-houses called the Aubrey Arms and with those arms (azure, three sheep's heads erased, proper) on their sign-posts, now scattered about the country were all within easy reach of the strand - and, it must be admitted, of the publican's smuggling brothers, uncles, cousins, nephews, and even God preserve us grandchildren. Yet the prudent and uxorious amounted to so small a proportion of the frigate's people that even when they were added to the paupers they hardly took away from the second anomaly, which was that the Surprise was also a ship largely filled with men who were sailing away under no compulsion on the part of authority, poverty ot want of employment, men who had considerable sums at home and who were setting out on this prodigious voyage for something more - something less definite than gain and more important. With such a multiplicity of characters the 'more' was necessarily somewhat shapeless, though some obvious part of it had to do with going far foreign, seeing new countries, cutting capers on Tom Tiddler's ground and perhaps picking up gold and silver, sailing in a happy ship, sailing away in war-time from the strong likelihood of eventual impressment and forced service under officers of a very different character - it was not the fighting that the Shelmerstonians disliked, nor even the hard lying and short commons, but the often unnecessarily harsh discipline, the hazing, the starting and sometimes the direct oppression. And although there was not a heart that did not delight in spoil - a sack of doubloons would make any man chuckle - a real and vehement desire for it was rarely a prime ingredient.

There were some men of course whose 'more' was eminently clear. Jack Aubrey did not give a damn for money: his sole aim was reinstatement in the service and restoration to the list of post-captains in the Royal Navy, with his former seniority if possible. All this had been semi-officially and conditionally offered after his cutting-out of the Diane; and it had been absolutely promised him after his election to parliament, or rather after his cousin had given him the pocket borough of Milford. But at last, at very long last, Aubrey had grown less sanguine, less confident in promises; his brief acquaintance with the House and his fellow-members had told him a great deal about the fragility of the administration and therefore of its undertakings; he did not for a moment doubt the present First Lord's word, but he knew that in the event of a change of ministry this word, this purely personal, verbal word, would not necessarily bind Melville's successor. He also knew - and this was a fresh though not entirely unforeseen development - that the Regent was by no means favourable to him. It arose partly from the fact that the Regent's naval brother, the Duke of Clarence, was both one of Jack's most fervent advocates and one of the Regent's most outspoken critics - the brothers were scarcely on speaking-terms; furthermore several strongly independent Whiggish admirals also said that Aubrey absolutely must be reinstated; and then by way of completing things Jack had made one of his rare adventures into literature. On hearing that in the course of a drawing-room the Regent's mistress Lady Hertford had been rude to Diana Maturin, his cousin by marriage and his best friend's wife, he said angrily and in rather too public a place, 'Birds of a feather, birds of a feather; fowl in their own nest, all tarred with the same brush. Dryden put it very well, speaking of another great man's mistresses: he said - he said - I have it. He said false, foolish, old, ill-natured and ill-bred. Aye: there's no beating Dryden. False, foolish, old, ill-natured and ill-bred - nothing more ill-bred than being uncivil at a levee or a drawing-room.'

It was his former shipmate Mowett who had told him the quotation and it was his present shipmate Maturin who told him that the words had reached the royal ear. Stephen had the news from his friend and close colleague Sir Joseph Blaine, the head of naval intelligence, who added, 'If we could tell who was in the backgammon room at the time, we might possibly be able to put a name on the worm in the apple.'

A worm in the apple there was. Some time before this two singularly well-placed French agents, Ledward of the Treasury and Wray of the Admiralty, had concocted a charge against Jack Aubrey: with Wray's intimate knowledge of naval officers' movements and Ledward's of the criminal world the accusation was so cleverly framed that it convinced a Guildhall jury and Jack was found guilty of rigging the Stock Exchange, fined, pilloried, and of course struck off the Navy List. The charge was false and its falsity was proved by a discontented enemy agent who betrayed Ledward and his friend, giving unquestionable evidence of their treachery; yet neither had been arrested, and now both were known to be in Paris. Blaine was sure they had been protected by some remarkably influential friend, probably some very high permanent official: this man (or possibly this small group of men), whose identity neither Blaine nor his colleagues could make out in spite of all their pains, was still active, still potentially very dangerous.

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