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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. od 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 over-steeved his bowsprits.’
‘Nor on her new foretopmast: their bosun must have died.’
‘Now they have steadies, 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 in 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 studding sails, 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 Cholmondeley . . . 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 ship-mates 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 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 has 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 Chalmondeley; 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 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