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The Hundred Days
On February 26, 1815, the deposed Emperor Napoleon escaped from Elba with a thousand soldiers. A Paris newspaper from the period can tell the rest of the story: "The Tiger has broken out of his den, the ogre has been three days at sea, the wretch has landed at Fréjus, the buzzard has reached Antibes, the invader has reached Grenoble, the General has entered Lyons, Napoleon slept at Fontainebleu, the Emperor will reach Paris today, and His Imperial Majesty will address his loyal subjects tomorrow." It was not quite the rest of the story. On June 18, 1815, Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo, and less than a month later, he abdicated for the second and last time. The adventure had lasted a little more than a hundred days, but is ever referred to, simply, as the Hundred Days. It was the final, blood-soaked flourish of the Napoleonic Wars, which have provided so many novelists with so many exciting tales.
Patrick O'Brian is far and away the best of the Napoleonic storytellers, and his new book, THE HUNDRED DAYS, is the 19th in a series telling of the adventures of Captain Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy and his friend, Dr. Stephen Maturin. It is also one of the best of the series; a classic naval adventure, crammed with incident, superbly plotted and utterly gripping.
The tale is invented. It had to be, for the Hundred Days really belongs to soldiers rather than to sailors. By 1815 Britain's Royal Navy was the world's superpower, unchallengeable by any fleet in any ocean. The fledgling U.S. Navy had tweaked the Royal Navy's pride with its frigate victories in the War of 1812, but when the British fleet appeared, heaping the horizon with sailcloth, even the American frigates fled for harbor. The French Navy had once been a genuine threat, but Nelson had destroyed its morale at Trafalgar, and by 1815, it was a pale shadow of its former greatness. Napoleon, looking to secure his usurped throne, could not expect any help at sea, other than from some privateers who would try to snap up British merchantmen. Not much scope in that background for a naval adventure, but O'Brian has triumphed nevertheless. He devises a plot in which Napoleon's Muslim allies attempt to ship a fortune in gold that will pay for mischief in Europe -- specifically to delay the advance of the Russian and Austrian forces that were marching westward to join their British and Prussian allies in the invasion of France. Jack Aubrey must stop the gold, but first he must find it.
Fans of O'Brian will need no introduction to Jack Aubrey, one of the most attractive heroes of all literature. He is in splendid form in The Hundred Days. "Have you ever noticed," he asks Maturin as they gaze on Cape San Giorgio, "how foreigners can never get English names quite right?" "Poor souls," murmurs Maturin. For many readers Stephen Maturin is the most beguiling of O'Brian's characters (and is widely thought to be a self-portrait of O'Brian himself). He is an Irish intellectual, torn between his patriotism and his detestation of Bonaparte, subtle and merciful, an apparent booby afloat, but as sharp as a scalpel whenever there is political intrigue about. And the good doctor has plenty of intrigue to untangle in this book as he threads the labyrinthine politics of the North African coast.
There is a marvelous evocation of Algiers at the height of its slave-trading days, a lion hunt, and, best of all for me, a wondrously funny subplot about Maturin's supposed Hand of Glory. A Hand of Glory was the murdering hand cut from a hanged man and was supposed to have magical properties, and O'Brian's use of it illustrates his extraordinary knowledge of early-19th-century manners, customs, and technology. At times, in some of the earlier Aubrey-Maturin novels, that encyclopedic background threatened to submerge the characters and plot, but there is no danger of that in The Hundred Days. The detail here is pitched precisely, never deflecting, merely reinforcing verisimilitude (Maturin's operating table is not just covered with sailcloth, but with "number eight sailcloth." That's good.) This is O'Brian at his brilliant, entertaining best, and when he is on this form the rest of us who write of the Napoleonic conflict might as well give up and try another career. Fans of the series will need no encouragement to buy this book, but if you are new to Aubrey and Maturin, then this is as splendid an introduction as you could wish for. I know some people hate reading series out of chronological order, but this book gives away nothing of its predecessors and so can be safely tried. And, once hooked, you will have another 18 novels to read with a promise, thank God, of another to follow.
Bernard Cornwell was born in London and raised in South Essex. Before becoming a full-time writer, he worked for BBC television, mostly as a producer, before taking charge of the current affairs department in Northern Ireland. He is an internationally bestselling author of numerous books, including the Sharpe series, the Starbuck Chronicles, and most recently, the Warlord Chronicles. He lives with his wife on Cape Cod, where he indulges his passion for sailing.
This time out, the (realistically aging) Aubrey and Maturin are called on to help frustrate Napoleon's last, desperate bid for power. The dictator has escaped from confinement on Elba, has rallied his armies, and is marching on British forces. There's a chance that Muslim mercenaries may cast their lot with Napoleon and tip the balance of power, if French gold reaches them in time. First in North Africa, and then across the Atlantic, the duo pursue the gold. There are clashes on land, some brilliantly rendered action at sea, and while the two eventually triumph, their victory is not without cost. More swift, vivid, engrossing work from the dean of historical novelists.
The sudden rearmament that followed Napoleon's escape from Elba had done little to thin the ranks of unemployed sea-officers by the early spring of 1815. A man-of-war stripped, dismantled and laid up cannot be manned, equipped and made ready for sea in a matter of weeks; and the best vantage-points in Gibraltar were now crowded with gentlemen on half-pay who with others had gathered to watch the long-expected arrival of Commodore Aubrey's squadron from Madeira, a squadron that would do something to refurnish the great bare stretch of water inside the mole -- an extraordinary nakedness emphasized by the presence of a few hulks, the Royal Sovereign wearing the flag of the Commander-in-Chief, and a couple of lonely seventy-fours: no stream of liberty-boats plying to and fro, almost no appearance of true wartime life.
It was a wonderfully beautiful day, with a slight and varying but reasonably favourable breeze at last: the sun blazed on the various kinds of broom in flower, upon the Rock, upon the cistuses and giant heath, while an uninterrupted stream of migrant birds, honey-buzzards, black kites, all the European vultures, storks both black and white, bee-eaters, hoopoes and countless hirundines flowed across the sky amidst a general indifference; for all eyes were fixed upon the middle distance, where the squadron had come about on the starboard tack. Among the earlier of the watchers, both carrying well-worn telescopes, were two elderly naval lieutenants who could no longer bear the English climate and who found that their £127 15s 0d a year went much farther here. `The breeze is veering again,' said the first. `It will be abaft the beam directly.'
`They will be in on this leg, sure.'
`In at last, after all these weary days, poor souls. Briseis kept them hanging about in Funchal until they almost grounded on their own beef-bones. She was always overmasted; and even now I cannot congratulate her on that botched-together bowsprit. Marsham has always oversteeved his bowsprits.'
`Nor on her new foretopmast: their bosun must have died.'
`Now they have steadied, and the line is as clear as can be. Briseis ... Surprise -- she must have been called back into service -- Pomone, wearing Commodore Jack Aubrey's broad pennant -- that must have put poor Wrangle's nose out of joint. Dover ... Ganymede. Dover ... Ganymede. Dover was fitted as a troopship and now she is changing herself back into a frigate as fast as ever she can. What a shambles!'
The breeze came aft and the whole squadron flashed out studdingsails, broad wings set in a thoroughly seamanlike manner: a glorious sight. Yet now the current was against them and in spite of their fine spread of canvas they made but little headway. They were all of them sailing large, of course, all of them getting the last ounce of thrust from the dying breeze with all the skill learnt in more than twenty years of war; a noble spectacle, but one that after a while called for no particular comment, and presently the old lieutenant, John Arrowsmith, two months senior to his friend Thomas Edwards, said, `When I was young I always used to turn to the births and marriages in the Times as soon as I had done with the promotions and dispatches; but now I turn to the deaths.'
`So do I,' said Edwards.
`... and with this last batch that came with the packet I found several names I knew. The first was Admiral Stranraer, Admiral Lord Stranraer, Captain Koop that was.'
`Oh, indeed? I sailed with him in the old Defender, a West Indies commission where he taught us the spit and polish of those parts. Gloves at all times, whatever the weather; Hessian boots with tassels, on the quarterdeck; up lower yards and cross topgallant yards in under five minutes or watch out for squalls; no reply allowed to any rebuke. If it were not that he is dead, I could tell you many a tale about him in Kingston.'
`Indeed, he was not a well-liked man at all, at all. They say his surgeon and another medico killed him with a black draught or something of that kind: but slowly, you understand me now, like the husband of one of those arsenic wives eager to be a widow but not choosing to swing for it.'
`From my acquaintance with his lordship, what you say does not surprise me in the least. On reflection, I believe I should offer each or either of the physical gentlemen a glass of brandy, were the occasions to offer. Do you see Surprise start her stuns'l sheet not to outrun her station?'
`Aye. She was always a wonderfully swift sailer; and now they have done her proud, as trim as a royal yacht. Webster saw her in young Seppings' yard where they were fitting her out regardless, diagonal bracing and everything you can think of -- fitting her out for a hydrographical voyage. A lovely little craft.'
For some time they discussed the ship's perfections; their practised hands holding her steady in their telescopes; but then, the line being perfectly re-established, a cable's length apart, Arrowsmith clapped his glass to and said, `Another death was of quite a different kind of man: Governor Wood of Sierra Leone. He was a fine fellow, very popular in the service, and he kept a noble table -- invited whole wardrooms when the King's ships came in; and youngsters too.'
`I remember him very well. John Kneller and I and nearly all our messmates dined with him after some cruel weather off the River Plate and weeks of damned short commons -- a sprung butt had drowned the bread-room. Lord, how we ate, and laughed, and sang! So he is dead. Well, God rest him, say I. Though when everything is said and done, we must all come to it; which may be some comfort to those that go before. A very handsome wife, as I recall, but on the learned side, which made her neighbours shy.'
`The breeze is strengthening out there. Dover has let fly her foretop-gallant sheets.'
The gust -- the series of gusts -- disturbed the picture-book regularity for a while, but it was restored after a remarkably short interval (all hands knew that they were being watched not only by an uncommonly exigent commodore and the even more formidable Commander-in-Chief Lord Keith, but also by an increasingly numerous band of highly-informed, highly-critical observers on shore) and presently the two lieutenants' conversation resumed.
`And then there was another what you might call naval death, a good deal earlier than the others but only now reported. Did you ever meet Dr Maturin?'
`I don't know that I did, but I have often heard of him. A very clever doctor, they say -- called in to treat Prince William -- always sails with Jack Aubrey.'
`That's the man. Well, he has a wife. They live with the Aubreys at his big place in Dorset -- but of course you know it, being a Dorset man.'
`Yes. Woolcombe; or Woolhampton as some say. It is rather far for us and we do not visit, but I have been to one or two of the Blackstone's meets there and we used to see Mrs Aubrey and Mrs Maturin at the Dorchester assembly. Mrs Maturin breeds Arabs: a very good horsewoman and an uncommon fine whip.'
`Well, yes ... so they said. But do you know a place called Maiden Oscott?'
`Only too well, with its damned awkward bridge.'
`The report gives no details, but it seemed she pitched over -- the whole shooting-match, coach, horses and all, pitched over right down into the river, and only the groom was brought out alive.'
`Oh, my God!' cried Edwards: and after a pause, `My wife disliked her; but she was a very beautiful woman. Some people said she was a demi-rep ... she had some astonishing jewels ... there was some talk of a Colonel Cholmodeley ... and it is said the marriage was not a happy one. But she is dead, God rest her. I say no more. Yet I doubt I ever see her like again.'
They both reflected, gazing out over the brilliant sea with half-closed eyes as the squadron drew inshore and the watching crowd increased; and Edwards said, `When you come to think of it, on looking about our shipmates and relations, can you think of any marriage that could be called a happy one, after the first flush? There is something to be said for a bachelor's existence, you know: turn in whenever you like, read in bed ...'
`Offhand I cannot think of many -- poor Wood in Sierra Leone for example: they entertained without a pause, so as not to have to sit down at table alone. It is said that Wood -- but he is dead. No, I cannot think of many without some discord or contention; but unless it is very obvious, who can tell just where the balance lies? After all, as a philosopher said, "Though matrimony has its pains, celibacy can have no pleasure".'
`I know nothing about philosophy, but I have met some philosophers -- we often used to go to Cambridge to see my brother the don -- and a miserable set of ...' He checked the word at the sight of his friend's daughters -- the elder charming, though rather shabby -- pushing through the crowd towards them, and went on in a disapproving tone, `... though you always were a bookish fellow, even in Britannia's cockpit.'
`Oh Papa,' cried the elder girl, `which is the Surprise?'
`The second in the line, my dear.'
The leading ships were now close enough for people to be seen -- blue coats and red on the quarterdeck, white-trousered seamen taking in topsails and courses together with jib and staysails -- but scarcely to be distinguished. The young lady gently took her father's telescope and trained it on the Surprise. `Is that the famous Captain Aubrey?' she asked. `Why, he is short, fat and red-faced. I am disappointed.'
`No, booby,' said her father. `The Commodore is where a Commodore ought to be, aboard the pennant-ship, of course: Pomone. Come, child, don't you see the broad pennant, hey?'
`Oh yes, sir, I see it,' she replied, training her glass on Pomone's quarterdeck. `Pray who is the very tall fair-haired man wearing a rear-admiral's uniform and holding his hat under his arm?'
`Why, Lizzie, that is your famous Jack Aubrey. Commodores dress like rear-admirals, you know: and they receive a flag-officer's return to their salute, as you will hear in about ten seconds.'
`Oh, isn't he beautiful? Molly Butler had a coloured engraving of him in action with the Turks -- of his boarding the Torgud sword in hand, and all the great girls at school ...'
What all the great girls said or thought was lost in the Pomone's exactly-spaced seventeen-gun salute to the Commander-in-Chief; and the echo of the last report and the drift of powder-smoke had not disappeared before the towering flagship began her fifteen-gun reply. When that too was done, Mr Arrowsmith said, `Now in another ten seconds you will see the signal break out Commodore repair aboard flag. His barge is already lowering down.'
`Who is that little man beside him, in a black coat and drab breeches?'
`Oh, that will be his surgeon, Dr Maturin: they always sail together. He can whip off an arm or a leg quicker than any man in the service; and it is a joy to see him carve a saddle of mutton.'
`Oh fie, Papa!' cried the girl: her younger sister gave a coarse great laugh.
Aboard Pomone the proper ceremony for the occasion was well under way, and as Jack walked out of the great cabin, stuffing a fresh handkerchief into his pocket and pursued by Killick with a clothes-brush, flicking specks of dust from the back of his gold-laced coat, he found his officers present on the quarterdeck, together with most of the midshipmen, all either wearing gloves or concealing their hands behind their backs.
The side-boys offered him the sumptuous man-ropes, and following the reefer on duty he ran down into his barge. All the bargemen knew him perfectly well -- they had been shipmates in many a commission, and two of them, Joe Plaice and Davies, had served in his first command, the Sophie; but neither they nor Bonden, his coxswain, gave the least sign of recognition as he settled in the stern-sheets, shifting his sword to give the midshipman more room. They sat there in their formal bargeman's rig -- broad-brimmed white sennit hat with ribbons, white shirts, black silk Barcelona handkerchiefs tied round their necks, snowy duck trousers -- looking solemn: they were part of a ceremony, and levity, winking, whispering, smiling, had no place in it. Bonden shoved off, said `Give way', and with exact timing, rowing dry with long grave strokes, they pulled the barge across to the starboard accommodation-ladder of the flagship, where an even more impressive ceremony took place. Jack, having been piped aboard, saluted the quarterdeck, shook hands with the ship's captain and the master of the fleet, while the Royal Marines -- scarlet perfection under a brilliant sun -- presented arms with a rhythmic clash and stamp.
A master's mate led the Pomone's youngster away, and Captain Buchan, who commanded the Royal Sovereign, ushered Jack Aubrey below, to the Admiral's splendid quarters: but rather than the very large, grim and hoary Commander-in-Chief, there rose a diaphanous cloud of blue tulle from the locker against the screen-bulkhead -- tulle that enveloped a particularly tall and elegant woman, very good-looking but even more remarkable for her fine carriage and amiable expression. `Well, dearest Jack,' she said, they having kissed, `how very happy I am to see you wearing a broad pennant. It was a damned near-run thing that you were not out of reach, half-way to Tierra del Fuego in a mere hydrographical tub, a hired vessel. But how we ever came to miss you on Common Hard I shall never understand -- never, though I have gone over it again and again. True, Keith was in a great taking about the naval estimates, and I was turning some obscure lines of Ennius in my head without being able to make any sense of them frontwards or backwards; but even so ...'
`Nor shall I ever understand how I came to be such an oaf as to walk in here, ask you how you did, and sit down by your side without the slightest word of congratulations on being a viscountess: yet it had been in my head all the way across. Give you joy with all my heart, dear Queenie,' he said, kissing her again; and they sat there very companionably on the broad cushioned locker. Jack was taller than Queenie and far more than twice as heavy; and having been in the wars for a great while and much battered, he now looked older. He was in fact seven years her junior, and there had been a time when he was a very little boy whose ears she boxed for impertinence, uncleanliness and greed, and whose frequent nightmares she would soothe by taking him into her bed.
`By the way,' said Jack, `does the Admiral prefer to be addressed as Lord Viscount Keith like Nelson in his time or just as plain Lord K?'
`Oh, just plain Lord, I think. The other thing is formal court usage, to be sure, and I know that dear Nelson loved it; but I think it has died out among ordinary people. Anyway he does not give a hoot for such things, you know. He values his flag extremely, of course, and I dare say he would like the Garter; but the Keiths of Elphinstone go back to the night of time -- they are earl marischals of Scotland, and would not call Moses cousin.'
They sat smiling at one another. An odd pair: handsome creatures both, but they might have been of the same sex or neither. Nor was it a brother and sister connection, with all the possibilities of jealousy and competition so often found therein, but a steady uncomplicated friendship and a pleasure in one another's company. Certainly, when Jack was scarcely breeched and Queenie took care of him after his mother's death, she had been somewhat authoritarian, insisting on due modesty and decent eating; but that was long ago, and for a great while now they had been perfectly well together.
A cloud passed over her face, and putting her hand on Jack's knee she said, `I was so happy to see you -- to have recovered you from Cape Horn at the very last moment -- that I overlooked more important things. Tell me, how is poor dear Maturin?'
`He looks older, and bent; but he bears up wonderfully, and it has not done away with his love of music. He eats nothing, though, and when he came back to Funchal, having attended to everything at Woolcombe, I lifted him out of the boat with one hand.'
`She was an extraordinarily handsome woman and she had prodigious style: I admired her exceedingly. But she was not a wife for him; nor a mother for that dear little girl. How is she? She was not in the coach, I collect?'
`No. The only other one on the box was Cholmondeley; my mother-in-law and her companion inside, and Harry Willet, the groom, up behind -- happily Padeen did not go that day. And Brigid does not seem very gravely upset, from what I understand. She is very deeply attached to Sophie, you know, and to Mrs Oakes.'
`I do not believe I know Mrs Oakes.'
`A sea-officer's widow who lives with us, a learned lady -- not as learned as you, Queenie, I am sure -- but she teaches the children Latin and French. They are none of them clever enough for Greek.'
A pause. `If he does not eat, he will certainly grow weak and pine away,' said Lady Keith. `We have a famous cook aboard Royal Sovereign -- he came back to England with the Bourbons. Would an invitation be acceptable, do you think? Just us and the Physician of the Fleet and a few very old friends. I have a crux in this passage of Ennius I should like to show him. And of course he must have a conference with Keith's secretary and the political adviser very soon... Oh, and Jack, there is something I must tell you, just between ourselves. Another Mediterranean command would be too much for him, so we are only here until Pellew comes out; though we shall stay in the Governor's cottage a little while to enjoy the spring. Do you get along well with Pellew, Jackie?'
`I have a great admiration for him,' said Jack -- and indeed Admiral Sir Edward Pellew had been a remarkably dashing and successful frigate-captain -- 'but not quite the veneration I have for Lord Keith.'
`My dear Aubrey,' cried the Admiral, walking in from the coach, `there you are! How glad I am to see you.'
`And I to see you, my Lord Viscount, if I may so express myself. My heartiest congratulations.'
`Thankee, thankee, Aubrey,' said the Admiral, more pleasant than quite suited his wife. `But I must say that I deserve to be degraded for having put in that foolish proviso in your orders about waiting for Briseis. I should have said ... but never mind what I should have said. The fact is that at that time I merely wanted your squadron to guard the passage of the Straits: now, at the present moment, the situation is much more complex. Six hundred thousand people cheered Napoleon when he entered Paris -- Ney has joined him -- a hundred and fifty thousand King's troops, well-equipped, drilled and officered, have done the same -- he has countless seasoned men who were prisoners of war in England and Russia and all over Europe at his devotion, flooding to the colours -- the Emperor's colours. There is the Devil to pay and no tar hot. Is Dr Maturin with you?'
`Is he up to talking about all this with my secretary and the politicos?'
`I believe so, my Lord. Although he shuns ordinary company he is dead set on the war and seizes upon any means whatsoever of informing himself -- newspapers, correspondence and so on -- and I have known him talk for three hours on end with a French officer -- royalist of course -- whose brig was in company with us during a flat calm off Bugio.'
`He would sooner not dine aboard Royal Sovereign, I gather.'
`I believe not, sir. But he will discuss the international situation and the means of bringing Napoleon down with the utmost vigour. That is what keeps him alive, it seems to me.'
`I am glad he has so great a resource at such a dreadful time, poor dear man. I have a great regard for him: as you will remember, I proposed he should be Physician of the Fleet at one time. Aye, aye, so I did. Well, I shall not pain him with an invitation he might find difficult to refuse. But if, in the course of duty, you could require him to report aboard just after the evening gun, when I hope for an overland packet by courier, he may learn still more about the international situation. A damned complex situation, upon my word. As I said, when first I sent for you I thought your squadron would be enough, at a pinch, to guard the passage of the Straits -- at a pinch, for you see how pitifully little we have here. But now, now, you will have to cut yourself in three to do half the things I want you to do. Heugh, heugh, a damned complex situation as the Doctor will learn when he comes here: he will be finely amazed. I will give you the broadest view just for the now ...'
Lady Keith gathered up her belongings and said, `My dear, I will leave you to it. But do not tire yourself: you have a meeting with Gonzalez this evening. I will send Geordie with a dish of tea directly.'
The broadest view, stripped of the Admiral's great authority and of his distinctive northern accent, generally pleasing to an English ear though sometimes impenetrably obscure, was very roughly this: Wellington, with ninety-three thousand British and Dutch troops, and Blucher, with a hundred and sixteen thousand Prussians, were in the Low Countries, waiting until Schwarzenberg, with two hundred and ten thousand Austrians, and Barclay de Tolly, slowly advancing with a hundred and fifty thousand Russians, should reach the Rhine, when in principle the Allies were to invade France. For his part Napoleon had about three hundred and sixty thousand men: they were made up of five corps along the northern frontier, the Imperial Guard in Paris, and some thirty thousand more stationed on the southeast frontier and in the Vendee.
Both men made their additions: both made their allowances for unity of command, the great value of a common language, and the stimulus of fighting on one's own soil under the orders of a man who had battered Prussians, Austrians and Russians again and again, fighting with extraordinary tactical skill against odds far greater than these.
Jack could not with propriety ask about the zeal or even the good faith of the Austrians and Prussians at this juncture, still less about the efficiency of their mobilization and equipment; but the Admiral's worn, anxious face told him a great deal. `Still,' said Lord Keith, `this is all the soldiers' business: we have our own concern to deal with. How I wish Geordie would come along with that tea -- why, Geordie, put the tray down here, ye thrawn, ill-feckit gaberlunzie.' A pause. `How I value a cup of tea,' he said. `May I pour you another?'
`Thank you, sir,' said Jack, shaking his head. `I have done admirably well already.'
The Admiral reflected, carefully put more hot water to the teapot, and went on, `In the first place there is the difficulty about the French Navy, their attitude varies from port to port, ship to ship. They are of course extremely susceptible and any untoward incident -- so easily brought about -- might have disastrous results. But far worse is this building of French men-of-war in the obscure Adriatic ports: obscure, but filled with prime timber and capital shipwrights -- country you know very well. This continued building, more or less disguised, is a great evil; and all the greater as Bonapartist officers and men are said to be standing by to take them over.'
`But payment, sir? Even a corvette costs a very great deal of money, and there is talk of frigates, even of two or three heavy frigates.'
`Aye. There is something very odd about it all. Our intelligence people see a Muslim influence, possibly Turkish, possibly the Barbary states, or even of all of them combined. At this very moment there is much greater activity in Algiers, Tunis and down the Moroccan coast, fomented by Napoleonic renegadoes with native craft and vessels up to the size of a sloop of war: it is almost impossible to deal with it, our naval strength being so reduced and so tied up. Already it is most harmful to Allied trade, particularly to ours, and it is likely to grow worse.'
The Admiral stirred his tea, contemplated, and said, `If Napoleon Bonaparte with his three hundred thousand very well trained men and his usual brilliant cavalry and artillery, can knock out say the Russians or part of the Austrians, the French navy may sweep us out of the Mediterranean again, above all as the Maltese and the Moroccans are so ungrateful as to hate us and as there is a real possibility of a French alliance with Tunis, Algeria and the other piratical states, to say nothing of the Emperor of Morocco and even the Sultan himself. For you know, Aubrey, do you not, that Bonaparte turned Turk? During the Egyptian campaign I think it was; but Turk in any case.'
`I heard of it, sir, of course; but no one has ever asserted that he recoiled from swine's flesh or a bottle of wine. I put it down to one of those foolish things a man says when he wishes to be elected to Parliament, such as "give me your votes, and I undertake to do away with the National Debt in eighteen months." I do not believe he is any more a Mussulman than I am. You have to be circumcised to be a Turk.'
`For my own part I have no knowledge of the gentleman's soul, or heart, or private parts: all I am sure of is that the statement was made, and that at this juncture it may be of capital importance. But we are prating away like a couple of old women...' He was interrupted by his secretary, who said, `I beg pardon, my Lord, but the courier is just come aboard with his budget.'
Jack had started to his feet, and now he said, `May I wait upon you later, sir, when you are less engaged?'
`Is there anything urgent, Mr Campbell?' asked Lord Keith, with a temporizing wave.
`Tedious and toilsome, rather than immediate, apart from one enclosure that I have already sent on.'
`Very good, very good. Thank you, Mr Campbell. Sit down, Aubrey. I will just run through the heads of these, then attend to your statements of the squadron's condition, and give you some notion of what I should like you to do.' A pause, during which the Admiral's long-practised hand ran through the dockets, already marked with Campbell's secret mark of importance: none rated above c3, and putting them down he said, `Well, Aubrey, in the first place you must allot a force adequate for the protection of the Constantinople trade. Convoys have been re-introduced, you know -- one is due within the week -- and the Algerians in particular have grown very bold, though some vessels are also to be expected from Tripoli, Tunis and the rest, while other corsairs push up from Sallee and pass straits in the dark of the moon. Then you must prevent any unauthorized atward or inward movement to the best of your ability. But your most important task by far is to look into those Adriatic ports you know so well. Even the small places are capable of building a frigate, and we have reports of actual ships of the line on the stocks in four places whose names Campbell will give you. If any of the two-deckers have openly declared for Napoleon you must not venture upon an action but send to me without the loss of a moment. Where frigates, corvettes or sloops are concerned, particularly if they are unfinished, you must endeavour to stop the building and obtain their disarmament, all of which requires the utmost degree of tact: I am so glad you have Maturin with you. An incident would, as I have said, be disastrous: though of course if there is a clearly-expressed intent of joining Bonaparte, you must burn, sink or destroy as usual.'
`Aye-aye, sir,' said Jack, and then, `My Lord, I believe you spoke of a courier. If he is not already gone, may I beg for my tender Ringle to be sent out immediately? William Reade, master's mate, handles her very well indeed -- an uncommon fast and weatherly Chesapeake clipper -- and I shall have the utmost need for such a craft.'
`William Reade, the young gentleman that lost an arm with you in the East Indies?' asked the Admiral, scribbling a note. `Certainly. Should you like to send him a message -- things to be brought out? Or Maturin? Well, I think that is the essential: you will of course receive detailed orders and some estimate of what you can expect from Malta when you are in Mahon.' The Admiral stood up. `I hope you will dine with us tomorrow?' Jack bowed, said, `Very happy,' and Keith went on, `I do not wish to be importunate, but if you feel you could convey some sense of our feeling -- our concern -- our sympathy -- to Maturin, pray do so. In any case, I look forward to learning his views on the situation this evening, when he will have been closeted with Campbell and the two gentlemen who came down from Whitehall. Do not ask him to come aboard the flag: they will go to see him in Pomone.'
A little before the evening gun Preserved Killick, Captain Aubrey's steward, an ill-faced, ill-tempered, meagre, atrabilious, shrewish man who kept his officer's uniform, equipment and silver in a state of exact, old-maidish order come wind or high water, and who did the same for Aubrey's close friend and companion, Dr Stephen Maturin, or even more so, since in the Doctor's case Killick added a fretful nursemaid quality to his service, as though Maturin were "not quite exactly" a fully intelligent being, approached Stephen's cabin. It is true that in the community of mariners the "not quite exactly" opinion was widely held; for although Stephen could now tell the difference between starboard and larboard, it still called for some reflection: and it marked the limit of his powers. This general view, however, in no way affected their deep respect for him as a medical man: his work with a trephine or a saw, sometimes carried out on open deck for the sake of the light, excited universal admiration, and it was said that if he chose, and if the tide were still making, he could save you although you were already three parts dead and mouldy. Furthermore, a small half of one of his boluses would blow the backside off a bullock. The placebo effect of this reputation had indeed preserved many a sadly shattered sailor, and he was much caressed aboard. A little before the evening gun, therefore, Preserved Killick walked into Stephen's cabin and found him sitting there in his drawers, a jug of now cold water and an unused razor in front of him, together with a clean shirt, neck-cloth, new-brushed black coat, new-curled wig, clean breeches, silk stockings and a respectable handkerchief, reading the close-written coded message from Sir Joseph Blaine, the chief of naval intelligence that had just arrived by courier.
`Oh sir,' cried Killick: but even as he exclaimed he choked the inborn shrew, lowering the `sir' to the gentlest tones of remonstrance.
`One moment, Killick,' said Stephen, resolving a particularly intractable group: he wrote it in the margin, covered it close, and said, `I am yours.'
Apart from the words `Which the gentlemen have been waiting ten minutes -- called twice for wine, and was you quite well?' Killick dressed him silently, efficiently, and led him to the captain's cabin, where the Admiral's secretary and the two gentlemen from Whitehall rose to greet him. One of them, Mr William Kent, was a familiar figure, his high office sometimes required him to resolve difficulties between the various departments of government and the services so that confidential work might be carried on in official silence: the other, Mr Dee, he knew only from having seen him at a few restricted conferences at which he spoke rarely or not at all, though he was treated with deference as an authority on eastern matters, particularly those concerned with finance -- he was connected with some of the great banking-houses in the City. Sir Joseph's coded message had only said `You will of course remember his book on Persian literature'.
Stephen did indeed remember it: he had had his own battered second-hand copy rebound -- a first edition -- and he recalled that the binder had put the date of publication at the bottom of the spine: 1764.
As they all sat down again, Stephen, with his back to the light, looked at Mr Dee with discreet curiosity, as at one whose work had enriched his youth: Mr Dee's face, alas, showed little but discontent and weariness. He did not see fit to open the conversation, so after a hesitant glance or so William Kent it was who addressed himself to Stephen, saying, `Well, sir, since you have been windbound for so long -- quite out of touch -- perhaps it would not be improper to give a brief sketch of the present situation?'
Stephen bowed, and leant towards him. Kent's summary was essentially the same as Lord Keith's; but Stephen, being unaffected by considerations of rank, tact, ignorance or particular respect, had no hesitation in asking questions, and he learned that the Netherlanders were by no means happy about the presence of Wellington's and Blutcher's armies; that the various rulers, commanders, and war offices were indeed at odds upon a very wide variety of subjects; that secrecy about plans, orders and appointed meetings scarcely existed in the Austrian army, with its many nationalities, rivalries and languages; and that as opposed to the effervescent sense of returning glory in France, there was a total lack of enthusiasm in many of the Allied regiments, and something worse, not far from mutiny, among the Russians, particularly the units from the wreck of divided Poland. Barclay de Tolly was doing all that a good soldier could do with his ill-equipped and discontented forces, but he could not make them move fast and they were already sixteen days behind the agreed timetable. They had an immense distance still to travel, and the rearguard had not yet even left its distant barracks. There was also mutual distrust, a fear of betrayal on the part of other members of the coalition or on that of some one or another of the many subject nations that made up the eastern powers.
Mr Dee coughed, and leaning forward he spoke for the first time, reminding Kent of an ancient Persian war in which a more numerous army made up of different nations had behaved in much the same way, being utterly shattered by the united Persian force on the banks of the Tigris: his account went on and on but as his voice was weak Stephen could not follow at all well -- he was ill-placed for listening -- and gradually he sank deeper and deeper into his own reflections, all necessarily of a kind as painful as could well be imagined. From time to time he was half aware that Mr Campbell was trying to lead them back to the matter in hand by mentioning Carebago, Spalato, Ragusa and other ports on the Adriatic shore -- if once the French were out they would represent a great danger -- few sea-officers reliable, if any . . .
He had some success, and in time Stephen was conscious that all three had in fact returned to naval matters; but much of his mind was still far down in the recent past when the voice of Kent pierced through with remarkable clarity. `... a very important point is that eventually one or another of these ships might protect or even carry the treasure.'
`The treasure, sir?'
He saw the three faces turned towards him and at almost the same moment he saw their expressions of surprise, even displeasure, turn to the grave, unobtrusive consideration that now surrounded him -- that must in decency surround him, like a pall, ever since his loss became public knowledge. It could not be otherwise: his presence was necessarily a constraint: levity, even good-fellowship, certainly mirth, were as much out of place as reproof or unkindness.
Kent cleared his throat, and the Admiral's secretary, excusing himself, withdrew. `Yes, sir, the treasure,' said Kent; and after a slight pause, `Mr Dee and I were discussing a scheme planned by Dumanoir and his friends -- a scheme to drive a Muslim wedge between the suspicious, slow-moving Austrian forces and the lingering Russians, preventing their junction and thus disrupting the planned meeting of the Allies on the Rhine.' Another pause. `You will recall that Bonaparte professed himself a Muslim at the time of the Egyptian campaign?'
`I remember it, sure. But am I mistaken when I say that it was of no consequence at all, apart from damaging his reputation still farther? No Mahometan I ever met or heard of was much elated. The Grand Mufti took no notice whatsoever.'
`Very true,' said Dee, his old voice stronger now. `But Islam is a world as varied as our own miserable congeries of hostile sects, and some of the more remote did in fact hail the news of his conversion with delight. Among these were people as widely separated as the Azgar, on the edge of the desert, and certain heretical Shiite fraternities in European Turkey, particularly Albania, Monastir, and a region close to the northern frontier, whose interpretation of the Sunna, read without the usual glosses, points to Napoleon as the Hidden Imam, the Mahdi. The most extreme are the descendants and followers of the Sheikh-al-Jabal.'
`The Old Man of the Mountains himself? Then they are the true, the only genuine Assassins? I long to see one,' said Stephen, with a certain animation.
`They are indeed; and although they are by no means so prominent as they were in the time of the Crusades, they are still a very dangerous body, even though the fedais, the experts, the actual killers, amount to only a few score. The rest of the mercenaries in the plan we are discussing, the rest of the potential mercenaries, though willing and eager to massacre unbelievers, are not moved by so pure a religious fervour that they will venture their skins free, gratis and for nothing. The three related fraternities throughout European Turkey all agree: the men are there, and as soon as they see two months' pay laid out before them, they will move. But not otherwise.'
`Is the sum very great?'
`Enormous: in the present state of affairs, when gold is at such a very shocking, unheard of premium, and credit is virtually dead. Far beyond anything the French can put down immediately: for, do you see, this sudden incursion must be very well-manned, with former Turkish auxiliaries, bashi-bazouks, tribal warriors, bandits and the like, all members of the Muslim fraternities or provided by them -- a very formidable body indeed if it is to succeed in its aim -- if it is to wreck the Allied plans and to give Napoleon the chance of engaging the weakest of the opposing armies and destroying it, as he has done before.'
`Certainly,' said Stephen. `But am I right in supposing that the Assassins' role is something more subtle than the wild impetuous assault of the bashi-bazouks?'
`Yes: and a truly devoted band of fedais might do Napoleon's cause an incomparable service by removing Schwarzenberg or Barclay de Tolly or an imperial prince or indeed any of the thinking heads. Yet even so there would have to be the massive intervention, preferably by night, and some truly bloody fighting for the full effect of panic, mutual distrust and delay.'
`Where is the money to come from?'
`The Turk reluctantly shakes his head,' said Mr Dee. `The Barbary states will provide volunteers and one tenth of the total when they see the rest. Morocco wavers. Their real hope is the Shiite ruler of Azgar, in whom they put all their trust. It is reported on very good authority that the gold has been promised and that messengers are to be sent -- perhaps have been sent -- to arrange the transport, probably from Algiers.'
`I speak as a man wholly ignorant of money-matters,' said Stephen. `Yet I had always supposed that even moderately flourishing states like Turkey, Tunis, Tripoli and the like, or the bankers of Cairo and a dozen other cities could at any time raise a million or so without difficulty. Am I perhaps mistaken?'
[CHAPTER CONTINUES ...]
Posted May 16, 2002
This is my second trip through the world of Jack and Stephens adventures and the richness of O'brian's tales is such that it truely is better the second time around.
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Posted February 22, 2013
This book takes place during the short time after Napoleon escapes from Elba and returns to France until his defeat at Waterloo. As Commodore of a small fleet, Jack Aubrey is ordered to the Mediterranean to prevent Napoleon's allies reinforcing the French emperor while Stephen Maturin uses his spycraft to track a shipment of gold heading from Tangiers.
I have been enraptured by this series. I am sad that this is the second to the last one.
Posted February 9, 2013
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Posted November 15, 2009
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Posted October 26, 2008
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Posted August 15, 2013
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Posted July 23, 2010
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