Blue at the Mizzen
By Patrick O'Brian
And now they were all on deck, radiating joy and facing aft on the larboard side of the quarterdeck in the usual disorderly naval heap, gazing at their captain, his officers, the purser and the clerk, ranged athwartships and facing forward on either side of some charming barrels. These had been brought aboard by a guard of Marines, heavily sealed: but now their heads had been taken off (though carefully numbered and preserved by the cooper) and it was apparent that their bodies were filled with coin. The gold was somewhat unorthodox, it having been captured in small uneven ingots which the Gibraltar goldsmiths had cast into smooth shining disks each marked 130g Troy: one hundred and thirty grains Troy weight: but the silver and copper were in their usual homely forms.
The echo of the fourth bell and the cheering died: the clerk, catching his captain's nod, called `John Anderson'. Since no one else aboard Surprise in this commission had ever come earlier in the alphabet it was no surprise to John Anderson or his shipmates; and although he was ordinarily shy and awkward he now stepped aft quite happily to the capstan-head: taking off his hat, he touched his forelock and cried, `John Anderson, sir, if you please: ordinary, larboard watch, afterguard.' The clerk followed this conscientiously in the book though he knew it all by heart; said, `Very well: one hundred and fifty-seventh part of a half-share: hold out your hat.' And plunging his right hand into the barrel of gold he drew out first one handful of disks and counted them into the hat, `One, two ... ten.' Plunged again, counted out seven more, said `Wait a minute' to Anderson and to his little dark shrewish assistant at the other two barrels, `Seventeen and fourpence.' Then to Anderson again, `That makes seventeen pound, seventeen shillings and fourpence: and here is your witnessed paper asking for three hundred and sixty-five pound to be remitted to Mrs Anderson. Are you content?'
`Oh dearie me, yes,' said Anderson, laughing. `Oh yes, sir, quite content.'
`Then sign here,' said the clerk: but seeing Anderson's uneasy look, he murmured, `Well, just make your mark in the bottom corner.'
And so it went, right through the list: there were a few men with no dependants of any kind, and they walked off with the entire hundred and fifty-seventh part of half the splendid prize; but most over thirty had yielded to the representations of their captain and divisional officers to send at least some money home; and all eagerly agreed with the clerk's reckoning. At one time Stephen Maturin, the frigate's surgeon, had been calculating the degree of literacy aboard; but melancholy, no doubt helped by the increasing wind and the spindrift, had welled up and he lost count among the names beginning with N. `How I do wish,' he murmured to Jack in a moment's pause, `that William and his Ringles might have been here.'
`So do I indeed: but, you know, as a privately-owned tender to what is in fact a hydrographical vessel I do not think they would stand in line for more than fourpence. In any case I could not refuse Lord Keith he had no other suitable craft at hand he asked it as a personal favour. And I owe him a great deal: I owe both of them a great deal.'
`Of course, of course: it was only that I should have liked some of the younger ones to accept a gold piece, by way of memento,' said Stephen. `How the waves increase! The darkness thickens.'
`They will rejoin at Madeira,' said Jack. `And then you can give them their gold pieces.' They talked on quietly until Jack realized that Willis and Younghusband had been dealt with, and that once Moses Zachary, one of Surprise's very old Sethian hands, had stopped chuckling over the coins that he obscurely insisted upon stuffing or trying to stuff into a variety of little inadequate triangular pockets it would be time for him as captain to wind up proceedings.
But the proceedings would not be wound up: in spite of the gathering darkness and the now quite vicious driving rain some hand, probably Giles, captain of the foretop, called out `It's all along of the unicorn's horn it's all along of the glorious hand. Huzzay, three times huzzay for the Doctor.'
Lord, how they cheered their surgeon! It was he who had brought the narwhal's tusk aboard: and the severed hand, the Hand of Glory, was his property: both symbolized (and practically guaranteed) immense good fortune, virility, safety from poison or any disease you chose to name: and both had proved their worth.
Jack Aubrey was a taut captain: he had been brought up by commanders who looked upon exact discipline and exact gunfire as of equal importance in a man-of-war, but on this occasion he knew that he had nothing whatsoever to say; and speaking privately to his first lieutenant he observed, `Mr. Harding, when things are a little calmer, let us weigh and proceed south-west by west with all the sail she can bear. If any King's ship hails or signals you will reply carrying dispatches and pursue your course, touching neither sheet nor brace.'
`South-west by west it is, sir: and carrying dispatches,' said Harding, and Jack, steadying Stephen by the elbow the frigate was pitching quite violently by now guided him to the great cabin, where they sat at their ease on the cushioned stern-lockers that ran across the ship under the elegant, remarkably elegant sash-lights that gave on to the sea.
`I am afraid it is going to turn out a truly dirty night,' said Jack. He stood up and in his sure-footed seaman's way walked over to his barometer. `Yes,' he said. `Dirtier than I had thought.' He came back and gazed out at the darkness, full of rain and flying water from the ship's bow-wave, more and more as she increased her way. `But, however,' he went on, `I am most heartily glad to be at sea. At one time I thought it could never be done ... indeed, without Queenie and Lord Keith it never would have been done.' The stern-lanterns were now lighting up the frigate's wake exceptionally broad, white and agitated for a ship with such fine lines but in spite of the brilliance just aft he could still clearly make out the distant red glow above Gibraltar, where they were still keeping it up in spite of the wind and the rain.
For his own part he had had quite enough of the junketing, especially that part of it which consisted of patriotic songs, self-praise and mocking the French, who had after all gone down fighting, outnumbered, with the utmost gallantry gibes that very often came from those who had had nothing whatsoever to do with the war. Even Maturin, though he loathed the whole Napoleonic system root and branch, could not bear the obscene, gloating caricatures of Bonaparte that were everywhere to be seen, a penny plain and up to as much as fourpence coloured.
`Do you remember Malta, when there was a payment of six dollars a head for one-share men?' asked Jack. `No, of course you do not: you were at the hospital, looking after poor Hopkins's leg. Well, I thought it would answer, with a settled, steady crew of seamen: and they certainly expected it, the bag of silver having been hauled out of the trabacolo's cabin and spilt on deck. But I was wrong: once ashore they kicked up Bob's a-dying to a most shocking extent and then set about the soldiery.'
`Indeed I remember it. My colleagues and I had to treat many of them: contusions, mostly, and some quite important fractures.'
`So you did ...' said Jack, shaking his head: then he stopped, listened intently, and ran on deck. Coming back, he wiped the foam and rain from his face with an habitual gesture and said, `Fore topmast staysail carried away a damned awkward veering wind and as black as the Devil's arse. But young Wilcox was up there before I reached the fo'c'sle and they were tallying the new sheet aft as though it were broad daylight and the sea as smooth as a pond. But there you are: that is your seaman. He can put up with uncommon dirty weather, endure great hardship and very short commons a good, steady, courageous, uncomplaining creature under officers he can respect. He will bear all that, and sometimes harsh punishment, shipwreck and scurvy. What he cannot bear is sudden wealth. It goes straight to their heads, and if there is the least possibility they get drunk and disorderly, and desert in droves. In Malta it was not so bad. With the help of the whores their six dollars were soon spent; and on an island there was no chance of deserting. But now the case is altered, and each damn-fool hand with fifty guineas in his pocket would have been blind drunk, poxed and stripped before Sunday, had we not got away: besides what is it, Killick?'
`Which we shall have to ship washboards athwart the coach door: green seas is coming aft as far as the capstan, and getting worse every minute. I doubt we'll ever get your toasted cheese up dry, without I bring up the spirit-stove and do it here.'
`Who has the deck at the moment?'
`Why, the Master, sir, in course: and he's just sent Mr. Daniel and a couple of strong hands aloft with a spare lantern. Which the top-light came adrift again. And sir ' addressing Stephen `your mate I beg his pardon: Dr. Jacob as I ought to say has had a nasty tumble. Blood all over the gunroom.'
Stephen tried to leap to his feet, but the roll of the ship pressed him back: and when he made a second attempt on the larboard heave it flung him forward with shocking force. Both the captain and the captain's steward had the same notion of Stephen's seamanship, however: between them they held him steady, and Jack, grasping his windward elbow, guided him through the coach the anteroom, as it were, to the great cabin and so out on to the deck, where the blast, the utter darkness, thick with racing spindrift, rain, and even solid bodies of sea-water, took his breath away, used though he was to the extremities of weather.
`Mr. Woodbine,' called Jack.
`Sir,' replied the Master, just beside the wheel, where the faint glow of the binnacle could be made out by eyes growing accustomed to the darkness.
`How is the top-light coming along?'
`I am afraid we shall have to rouse out the armourer, sir: I doubt Mr. Daniel can fix the bracket without heavy tools.' Then raising his voice he called to the quartermaster stationed to windward, watching the weather-leeches. `Higgs, hail the top and ask if Mr. Daniel would like the armourer.'
Higgs had an enormous voice and very keen ears: through all the shrieking of the wind in the rigging and its roaring changes he conveyed and received the message. By this time Stephen could make out the small hand-lantern high among the pattern of sails, all as close-hauled as ever they could be, with the frigate plunging westward through the tumultuous seas. He could also see the faint light reflected from the companion-ladder; and towards this he crept, holding on to everything that offered, bowed against the wind and the blinding rain. But with each tentative step he took down, the frantic uneven roll grew less a question, as Jack had often told him, of the centre of gravity. Yet a most discreditable scene it was when he opened the larboard door of the bright-lit gunroom. Here were men, accustomed to bloodshed from their childhood, now running about like a parcel of hens, mopping Jacob's arm with their napkins, giving advice, proffering glasses of water, wine, brandy, loosening his neckcloth, undoing his breeches at the waist and the knee. The purser was literally wringing his hands.
`Pass the word for Poll Skeeping,' cried Stephen in a harsh peremptory tone. He thrust them aside irrespective of rank, whipped out a lancet (always in a side-pocket), slit Jacob's sleeve up to the shoulder, cut the shirt away, uncovered the spurting brachial artery and two other ample sources of blood on the same limb. In turning a complete somersault over both his chair and a small stool with a glass in his hand, at the moment of a double rise on the part of the frigate followed by a sickening plunge, Jacob had contrived not only to stun himself but also to shatter the glass, whose broad, sharp-edged sides had severed the artery and many other smaller but still considerable vessels.
Poll came at a run, carrying bandages, gut-threaded needles, pledgets and splints. Stephen, who had his thumb on the most important pressure-point, desired the members of the gunroom to stand back, right back; and Poll instantly set about swabbing, dressing and even tidying the patient before he was carried off to a sick-berth cot.
All this had called for a good deal of explanation and comment: and when Jack came below, telling Mr. Harding that they were making truly remarkable way, barely six points off the wind, the whole tedious thing seemed to be happening again, with people showing just what had happened and how it had happened, when a truly enormous, an utterly shocking crash checked the frigate's way entirely, thrusting her off her course and swinging the lanterns so violently against the deck overhead that two went out a crash that drove all discussion of Jacob's injuries far, far from the collective mind. Jack shot up on deck, followed by the whole gunroom.
He could at first see nothing in the roaring darkness: but Whewell, the officer of the watch, told him that the forward starboard lookout had hailed `Light on the starboard bow' seconds before the enormous impact; that he himself had seen a huge, dark, and otherwise lightless craft coming right before the wind at ten knots or more, strike the frigate's bows, cross her shattered stem and run down her larboard side, her yards sweeping Surprise's shrouds but always breaking free. A very heavy Scandinavian timber-carrier, he thought: ship-rigged. Could see no name, no port, no flag. No hail came across. He had roused out the bosun and the carpenter they would report in a moment the ship was steering still, though she sagged to leeward.
Jack ran forward to meet them. `Bowsprit and most of the head carried away, sir,' said the carpenter.
`Nor I shouldn't answer for the foremast,' said the bosun.
A carpenter's mate addressed his chief: `We'm making water: five ton a minute,' in a tone of penetrating anxiety that affected all who heard him.
Harding had already called all hands, and as they came tumbling up Jack put the ship before the wind, furling everything but the main and fore courses and manning the pumps. She answered her helm slowly, and she sailed slowly; but once Jack had her with the very strong wind and the short, pounding sea on her uninjured larboard quarter she no longer gave him that desperate sense of being about to founder any minute; and he and the carpenter and Harding, each with a lantern, made their tour of inspection: what they found was very, very bad bowsprit, head and all the gear swept clean away headsails gone, of course; and there were certainly some sprung butts lower down. But by the end of the middle watch, with the carpenter and his mates working as men will work with water pouring into their ship, the pumps were holding their own, or even very slightly gaining on the influx. `Oh, it's only makeshift stuff, you know, sir,' said the carpenter. `And if ever you can bring her inside the mole and so into the yard, I shall forswear evil living and give half my prize-money to the poor." for it is only the yard that can make her anything like seaworthy. God send we may creep inside that lovely old mole again.'
They did creep inside that lovely old mole again, and there they spent the remaining hours of the night in relative peace, the wind howling overhead but sending no more than wafts of foam and sometimes even webs of seaweed into their part of the harbour.
Early in the calm of the morning they made their way down the New Mole and the Naval Yard, doing what little they could to make the ship more nearly presentable (though for all their labour she still looked like a handsome woman who has been very severely beaten and had her nose cut off short), and Jack having sent to ask after Jacob `Tolerable for the moment, but it is still too soon to speak, and Dr. Maturin begs to be excused from breakfast' sat down to his steak; and as he ate it so he made notes on the folded piece of paper by his side. Then he ate all the toast in his own rack and trespassed on Stephen's, drinking large quantities of coffee: more nearly human now, after a night almost as rough as any he had known (though mercifully short) he passed the word for his clerk. `Mr. Adams,' he said, `should you like a cup of coffee before we begin Lord Barmouth's letter and the report?'
`Oh yes, sir, if you please. The berth drinks tea, which is no sort of a compensation for such a night.'
The letter was simplicity itself: Captain Aubrey presented his compliments and begged to enclose his report of the previous night's events and the damages caused thereby; and it ended with a request that Captain Aubrey might have the honour of waiting on his Lordship as soon as might be convenient. `And please have that taken up directly by our most respectable-looking midshipman.'
Adams pondered, shook his head, and then observed, `Well, I have heard Mr. Wells described as a pretty boy.'
`Poor little chap. Well, when you have written the report fair, let Mr. Harding know, with my compliments, that I should like Mr. Wells to be washed twice: he is to put on his number one uniform, a round hat and dirk. And perhaps Mr. Harding would send ... would send some reliable man to see him there and back.' Bonden's name had been in his throat and the checking of it caused an oddly searing pain: so many shipmates gone, but never a one to touch him for true worth.
Harding's choice, a grave quartermaster, brought Mr. Wells back, and Mr. Wells brought Captain Aubrey word that the Commander-in-Chief would receive him at half-past five o'clock.
Jack was there with naval punctuality, and with naval punctuality Lord Barmouth turned his secretary out of the room: yet no sooner had Jack walked in than one of the two doors behind the Admiral's desk opened and his wife appeared. `Why, Cousin Jack, my dear,' she cried, `how delightful to see you again so soon! Though I fear you had a very horrid time of it, with that blackguardly great merchantman Barmouth,' she said in an aside, laying her hand on her husband's arm, `the Keiths will be charmed, and Queenie asks may she bring Mr. Wright? Cousin Jack, you will come, will you not? I know how sailors detest a late dinner, but I promise you shall be fed at a reasonably Christian hour. And you must tell us every last detail Queenie was terribly concerned to hear how poor Surprise had suffered.' Isobel Barmouth was and always had been a spirited creature, not to be put down easily nor yet made to leave the room. But she was by no means a fool and it was clear to her that obstinacy at this point might do Jack more harm than anything Barmouth could inflict on her. The Admiral was a brave and capable sailor; he had had a remarkable career; and as her guardians had pointed out he was an excellent match. But for all his courage and his admitted virtues, she knew that he was capable of a shabby thing.
When the door had closed behind her, Barmouth sat down to Jack's report: he said, `I have given orders to all the few cruisers I have at sea to watch out very carefully for any vessel remotely resembling the ship that crossed your bows: judging by the shocking amount of damage you received' tapping the long, detailed list in Jack's report `she should be pretty recognizable. Even a liner must have suffered terribly from such an impact, and from what I gather she was not much more than a fair-sized Baltic merchantman. However, that is another matter: what I am really concerned about is the present condition of Surprise: I wonder you can keep her afloat.'
`We are very fast to the mole, my Lord; and we keep the pumps going watch and watch.'
`Yes, yes: I dare say: but what worries me is this. Having fulfilled and very handsomely fulfilled Lord Keith's orders, you now revert to your former status: a hydrographical vessel I think a hired hydrographical vessel intended by the appropriate department for the survey of Magellan's Strait and the southern coasts of Chile. You are completely detached from my command in the Mediterranean; and although I should like to what shall I say? to virtually rebuild your ship, if only in recognition of your most spirited capture of that damned galley, I cannot wrong my men-of-war who are waiting for urgent repairs, by giving a hydrographer precedence. A man-of-war must come first.'
`Very well, my Lord,' said Jack. `But may I at least beg for a somewhat less exposed berth?'
`It may be possible,' said the Admiral. `I shall have a word with Hancock about it. But now,' he went on, rising, `I must say good-bye until dinner-time.'
Jack arrived, neat and trim: in good time, of course, but time not quite so good as the Keiths. He was very kindly greeted by Queenie and Isobel Barmouth, yet with the brutality of childhood acquaintance he broke away from them and strode over to Lord Keith, whom he thanked very heartily indeed for his intervention with the prize-court functionaries. `Nay, nay, never speak of it, my dear Aubrey: no, no these gentlemen are very well known to me I am acquaint with their little ways and they are aware that they must not practise upon me or my friends. But Aubrey, I must beg your pardon for keeping Ringle away from you: she would have been wonderfully useful in pursuing that vile great Hamburger or whatever she was that so cruelly stove in your beak and bows. I was looking at Surprise this morning, and I wondered that you ever managed to bring her in.'
`We were blessed with a following wind and sea, my Lord; and with a mere handkerchief spread on the fore topsail yard we just had steerage-way: but it was nip and tuck.'
`I am sure it was,' said Keith, shaking his head. `I am sure it was.' He considered for a while, sipping his glass of Plymouth gin, and then said, `But I must tell you what an excellent young man you have in William Reade. He handled his schooner admirably, and he did everything I asked. But I am afraid you must have missed him sadly when you had to make the mole, and when you hoped to identify the villain.'
`We did, sir: but what really grieves me is that I find that as the commander of a privately-owned tender, and being absent, he scarcely shares in the prize at all; and with the Navy being laid up again now that Boney is taken, or put into ordinary or just left to rot, he is very unlikely to get another ship in the near future, if indeed at all, and an ordinary lieutenant's share would have been uncommon useful. Peace is no doubt a very good thing, but ...'
At this point Lady Barmouth greeted two late arrivals, Colonel and Mrs. Roche; and introductions were barely over before she was told that dinner was served.
This was not a formal party, arranged some time earlier, and there were not enough women to go round. Jack found himself sitting on Isobel's left, opposite Lord Keith, while his other neighbour was Colonel Roche, obviously a newcomer. `I believe, sir,' said Jack to him, after a few inconsequential exchanges, `that you were at Waterloo?'
`I was indeed, sir,' replied the soldier, `and a very moving experience I found it.'
`Was you able to see much? In the few fleet actions I have known, apart from the Nile, I could make out precious little, because of the smoke; and afterwards most people gave quite different accounts.'
`I had the honour of being one of the Duke's aides-de-camp, and he nearly always took up a position from which he and of course we underlings could see a great stretch of country. As you know, I am sure, the whole engagement took several days, which I think is not usual with fights at sea, but the one I remember best was the eighteenth the eighteenth of June, the culmination.'
`I should take it very kindly if you would give me a blow-by-blow account.'
Roche looked at him attentively, saw that he was in earnest, very much in earnest, and went on, `Well, during the night there had been very, very heavy rain communications had always been extremely difficult on both sides, with messengers being shot or captured or merely losing their way but we did know that the Prussians had been very severely handled at Ligny, losing about twelve thousand men and most of their guns, that Blücher himself had had his horse shot under him and had been ridden over in the cavalry-charge. Many of us thought that the Prussians could not soon recover from such a blow; and that even if they did, Gneisenau, who would replace the injured Blücher and who was no friend of ours, could not be expected to bring them to battle. During the night a message came saying that Blücher was coming with two or possibly four corps: it pleased some people, but most of us did not believe it. I think the Duke did: anyhow, he decided to accept battle, occupying Mont Saint-Jean, Hougoumont and La Haye Sainte with about sixty-eight thousand men and a hundred and fifty-six guns as against Napoleon's seventy-four thousand and two hundred and forty-six guns. The French cavalry regiments were much hampered by the rain-soaked ground, the artillery even more so, and it was not until after eleven in the morning that the enemy, drawn up in three lines on the opposite slope, about three-quarters of a mile away, sent a division to attack Hougoumont. They were beaten back: but now the real battle began, with eighty French guns drawing up to batter La Haye Sainte, the centre, to weaken the forces stationed there before the more serious attack, and ...'
`Should you like some more soup, sir?' asked the servant.
`Oh go away, Wallop,' cried Lord Barmouth: the whole table had in fact been listening closely to Roche's account, by far the most informed and authoritative they had yet heard. `Sir,' went on Lord Barmouth, as Wallop vanished, `may I beg you to place a bottle or two, or some pieces of bread, in the vital places, so that we mere sailors can follow the manoeuvres?'
`Of course,' said Roche, seizing a basket of rolls. `This is just a rough approximation, but it gives the general sense Hougoumont, La Haye Sainte, the emperor's centre right over on that side of the table, the Paris wood and some other woods beyond it at Lord Barmouth's end. Now this piece of bread is Hougoumont, and upon the rise stood the base of a ruined mill: I was on top of it, gazing at the general array, sweeping the countryside with my glass, and I saw a curious movement at the edge of the woods by Chapelle Saint-Lambert: a dark mass, a dark blueish mass a Prussian blue. I counted the formations as soberly as I could and then leapt down. I said, `By your leave, sir: at least one Prussian corps is advancing from Saint-Lambert, some five miles away.' This was at about half-past four. The Duke nodded, took my glass and directed it at the emperor: within a few minutes French staff-officers were galloping in various directions. Cavalry squadrons and some infantry left their positions, moving in the direction of the Prussians; while within a very short time Marshal Ney attacked the Allied centre. But his men failed to storm La Haye Sainte and two of Lord Uxbridge's cavalry brigades rode right over them, capturing two eagles, but paying heavily when fresh enemy squadrons took them in the flank.'
`Pray, sir,' asked Mr. Wright, a scientific gentleman, `what are eagles, in this sense?'
`Why, sir, they are much the same as colours with us a disgrace to lose, a triumph to win.'
`Thank you, sir, thank you. I do hope I have not checked your flow that would be a catastrophe.'
Roche bowed, and went on, `Then Ney was required to attack La Haye Sainte again: after a most shocking cannonade the Allies withdrew for better cover. The French mistook this for a genuine retreat and launched forty-three squadrons of cavalry. But on this uphill, yielding ground the horses could do no more than trot, and their riders found the Allied infantry formed in impenetrable squares: they were swept by gunfire and the Allied cavalry drove them down the slope. But now the French cuirassiers and the Imperial Guard cavalry were sent forward, their retreating friends falling in behind them eighty squadrons in all. Eighty squadrons, sir! It was the most furious attack imaginable: such fighting I have never seen. But they could not break the Allied squares: and at last they too were driven down the hill. And now Bülow engaged the forces Napoleon had sent against him this was about a quarter to five at first with some success, taking Placenoit: just by the centrepiece, ma'am. However, reinforcements drove him out, and Napoleon ordered Ney to take La Haye Sainte: this he accomplished, the troops holding it having used up all their ammunition. But the Duke, undisturbed by the loss of his key-position, sent all he could to strengthen the centre; and by this time two other Prussian corps had joined the battle. I will not go into details I have talked myself hoarse and you almost to death from starvation yet I will just say that with Zeiten's Prussian corps coming up, the Duke could move two fresh cavalry brigades from his right wing to strengthen the centre: a point of the very first importance. But now Napoleon attacked with his utmost strength all along the line, sending in the Imperial Guard. They fought with very great courage, but they no longer had enough men. As the Guard fell back, Zeiten's Prussians drove through part of the French front, right through: and that was the end. Some battalions of the Guard held firm, but then they too had to join the total rout. I do beg your pardon, ma'am,' he said to Isobel Barmouth.
`Not at all, Colonel, not at all. I thought it perfectly fascinating, all the more so that I could make out the various directions. Thank you very much indeed.' She gave the attentive Wallop a secret nod, and dinner resumed its stately pace.
When it was over and the men were sitting over their port, the two admirals and Mr. Wright at the top of the table talking eagerly about the problems of scour as it related to the problem of the new mole, Jack said to Roche, `I have never had the honour of meeting the Duke of Wellington: surely he must be a very great man?'
`Yes, he is: and he can say some very fine things, just straight off, like that not studied.'
`Could you tell me one or two?'
`Alas, I have a wretched memory, above all for quotations. In the middle of the night they may come back to me, but not at command. Still, I do remember that as we rode about the field afterwards, and when we had seen the wreck of the Inniskillings' square and its shocking number of dead, he said to me, "Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle gained". And then again, much later, when we were moving down into France, "It has been a damned serious business Blücher and I have lost thirty thousand men. It has been a damned nice thing the nicest-run thing you ever saw in your life ... By God! I don't think it would have done if I had not been there."'
There was a longish pause, in which the sailors and the expert talked passionately about the various currents between the European and the African shores and Jack and Roche walked up and down the terrace outside, smoking cheroots. After half a dozen turns Roche said, `Once he also said that his men Were the scum of the earth, or perhaps Mere scum of the earth. That was well before Waterloo: he said it quite often, I believe, and I first had it at second hand. I rather resented the words, forming my judgement from the men I had served with; but I do assure you they came back to my mind, carrying full conviction, on the march back to Paris, escorting the sick and wounded there was no room for in Brussels: the drunkenness, riot, insubordination, theft, looting and open rape and we in a nominally friendly country were utterly sickening. The provost-marshal's men were very active and they set up the triangles every morning we use them for flogging, you know but it did no good, and I was heartily glad to have them all clapped up in the Coligny barracks and to be rid of the whole shooting-match. In the end I came to the conclusion that men subjected to very strong discipline may behave like devils the moment they are released from it. Anyhow, that matches my experience.'
Jack nodded, saying, `Yes, yes, I am sure.' But his tone implied that although the words were quite true of the army, sailors were, upon the whole, of a different nature.
`Come in, dear Coz,' called Isobel at the open door, `or your coffee will be no more than just tepid.'
On his way up from the dockyard to Lord Barmouth's house, Jack Aubrey had been aware of a dark, sullen, dogged, ominous cloud at the back of his mind: but in spite of its almost tangible presence he had enjoyed his evening. He was very fond of Queenie and (though in another way) of Isobel. He had thoroughly relished Roche's account; and even his last microscopic cause for discontent the lukewarm coffee had been dispelled by the appearance of a fine strong pot, almost too hot to drink, and then some capital brandy.
But now that he was going down towards the outer batteries, the dockyard and of course the town, the sullen cloud moved to the forefront of his mind, and his spirits sank with the road. In places it had been blasted out of the rock to allow the passage of heavy guns, and in these hollow stretches he was quite sheltered from the breeze and the diffused murmur of the town, though not from its glow, reflected from the high, even cloud.
He had just settled on a boulder in one of these sheltered corners when he found that he had given Roche the last of his cigars: it was a vexation, but only a moderate one, and it turned his mind back to the soldier's remarks about men being released from strong discipline and their subsequent excess. `No,' he said. `The sailor is a different animal.' He stood up, walked on, and turned out of the cutting on to the plain hill-side, and there the breeze brought him the very powerful, perfectly familiar voice of Higgs. `There ain't no martial law,' cried the sailor, apparently addressing a fair-sized group in the still unfinished eastern end of the Alameda Gardens. `There ain't no martial law. The war is over. In any case, Surprise ain't a man-of-war no longer, but a surveying vessel. They can't do nothing to us. We've got our money and we can do what we damned well please. There ain't no martial law, and we are free.'
`Wilkes and liberty,' cried someone, drunker than most.
`There are merchantmen crying out for hands, weeping for hands. Eight pound a month, all found, free tobacco and prime victuals. I am going home.' A good deal of hallooing followed this, but Higgs' enormous voice drowned it with the cry `There ain't no martial law. We are not slaves.'
`We are not slaves,' cried the others, stamping the ground with a rhythmic stress.
This falling apart of the frigate's crew, this disintegration of a community, was of course the darkness that he had kept back through the dinner and his happy evening with Isobel and Queenie. It could not but have been there, Jack being of the sea briny, deeply aware of its motions and of the motions of those who sailed upon it. He had been conscious of the hands' discontent even before it was formulated: naturally, with the war over, they wanted to go home and have a good time. But he was not going to lose his ship or his voyage if he could help it.
They were a motley lot, the present Surprises: the Admiral had had to bring her up to war-time strength when Jack was given his squadron, and no captain in his senses was going to hand over his best men: some of the unhappy pressed objects that came across were more fit for a charitable foundation than a man-of-war, but most were of the lower, more stupid, least-skilled kind of seafaring man, good for hauling on a rope, but little else: natural members of the afterguard. Now, however, full of life, full of gin and admiration for Higgs, they were forming up behind him, and within moments they were marching into the town, all bawling `There ain't no martial law.'
`Can it be true, Captain Aubrey?' asked a voice just behind him. `Can it be true that there ain't no martial law?'
`Mr. Wright? How very pleasant to see you. As for the state of the law, in this case as in almost all others, I am profoundly ignorant: but if I were at home, as a magistrate I should feel inclined to read the Riot Act.'
They walked along behind the seamen: and when the cry about slavery was suddenly cut short by the sight of an immense fire at the crossroads two whole carts and countless empty barrels with people dancing round it anticlockwise Jack said, `I know that Maturin would be very sorry not to see you. I cannot invite you to the ship, she having been sadly damaged in a collision. But he and I are to sup together at the Crown, and we should be delighted if you were to join us.'
`The Crown? Very happy indeed. As it happens I am staying at the George, and I shall have to call in there first ... and if you will forgive me, sir, this lane takes me to the side courtyard, avoiding the crowded square.'
`So it does,' said Jack. `So it does: then shall we say about ten o'clock? Maturin and I will come and fetch you, the streets being so full of people.'
Jack Aubrey, a tall, solid and even massive figure in his post-captain's uniform gold epaulettes broaden a man wonderfully, particularly by firelight made his way easily enough through the revolving throng and pushed on towards the Surveyor's office, where, if he did not find any of the senior officials present, he meant to leave a note: but at the turning into Irish Town his way was blocked by so compact a mass of people and by such an enormous discordant volume of sound that even his sixteen stone could not advance: and very soon he was blocked from behind as well. In the middle there was a furious battle going on, between Canopuses and Maltas as far as he could make out, while on the right hand a determined body of seamen were breaking into a large wine-shop defended by an equally determined body of well-armed guards; while over on the far side it was clear that a brothel quite a well-known brothel had been taken by storm, and its naked inhabitants were trying to escape over the roof, pursued by yet more determined sailors.
Standing there, wedged, unable to advance or retreat, coughing with the smoke of various fires, he reflected on his hitherto conviction that soldiers and sailors were, upon the whole, quite different creatures. `And perhaps they are, too: yet perhaps drink, in very large quantities, may make the difference less evident.'
Continues . . .
© 1999 Patrick O'Brian