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A Passage Down the Solent
Monday, 23 February 1807
Had I suffered the misfortune to be born a man, I should have torn myself early from the affections of my family and all the comforts of home, and thrown my fate upon the mercy of the seas.
That fresh salt slap, as bracing as a blow; the bucking surge of wave upon wave, a riderless herd never to be bribed or charmed into complaisance; the endless stretch curbed by no horizon, that must unfold an infinite array of wonders before the eyes — exotic climes, benighted peoples, lost cities set like rubies among the desert chasms — oh, to sail the seas as my brothers have done before me! Free of obligation or care beyond the safety of oneself and one’s men — free of the confines of home and earth-bound hopes and all the weight of convention like an anchor about one’s neck!
Casting my eye across the extent of Southampton Water to the New Forest opposite — verdure indistinct behind a scrim of morning fog — I shuddered from suppressed excitement as much as from the chill rising off the sea. From my position on Southampton’s Water Gate Quay I might dip my hand for a time in the cold current of English history. Southampton Water, and the Solent that runs between the mainland and the Isle of Wight just south, have ever been the point of departure for great adventure — for risk, and high daring, and fortunes made or lost. Here the troops of King Henry embarked for the battle of Agincourt; here the Puritan colonists hauled anchor for the New World. It is impossible to stand within sight and sound of the heaving grey waters, and be deaf to their siren call; and not for Jane Austen to resist the force that has bewitched so many Hearts of Oak.
A forest of masts bobbed and swayed under my gaze: men o’war newly-anchored from Portsmouth; merchant vessels and whalers from the far corners of the Atlantic; Indiamen, rich and fat with the spoils of Bombay; and a thousand smaller craft that skimmed the surface of the Solent like a legion of water beetles. Hoarse cries of boatmen and the creak of straining ropes resounded across the waves; a snatch of sea-chanty, an oath swiftly quelled. The smell of brine and pitch and boiling coffee wafted to my reddened nostrils. This was life, in all its unfettered boldness — and these were Englishmen at their most honest and true: a picture of glory enough to drive a thousand small boys from their warm beds, and send them barefoot to the likeliest ship, hopeful and unlettered, ill-fed and mendacious as to right age and family, for the sake of a creaking berth among the rats and the bilge-water below. Were I returned in spirit to the days of my girlhood, a child of seven sent to school in Southampton — I might be tempted to steal my brothers’ Academy uniforms, and stow away myself.
“Are you quite certain you wish to accompany me to Portsmouth, Jane?” enquired my brother Frank anxiously at my elbow.
I turned, the pleasant reverie broken. “I should never have quitted my bed at such an early hour, Fly, for anything less. You could not prevent me from boarding that hoy at anchor, if you were to set upon me with wild dogs.” It was necessary to suggest bravado — the hoy, with a single mast bobbing in the swell, was rather a small coasting vessel when viewed against the backdrop of so much heavy shipping: and I am no seawoman.
“The weather shall certainly be brisk,” my brother persisted doubtfully. “The wind is freshening, and I fancy we shall have rain before the day is out.”
“I do not regard a trifling shower, I assure you — and the air is no warmer in our lodgings. Mrs. Davies is of a saving nature, and does not intend that we shall ever be adequately served if our discomfort might secure her a farthing. My mother felt a spur beyond petulance and imagined ills, when she took to her bed after Christmas. She knows it to be far more comfortable than Mrs. Davies’s fire.”
“I must lay in a supply of fuel for our own use,” Frank murmured. “I had done so, in December, but the faggots disappeared at an unaccountable rate.”
“That we shall lay to sister Mary’s account,” I replied sardonically. “It cannot be remarkable that so cold-hearted a lady must require a good, steady fire. Her frame should lack animation entirely, Fly, without external application of heat.”
He looked at me in hurt surprise. “Jane!”
“Not your excellent creature, my dear,” I said quickly. “I speak entirely of James’s Mary! You know that I have never borne her any affection, nor she but a pretence of the same for me.” I would to Heaven that my brothers had possessed the foresight to marry women of singularity, in their names at least. Two of the Austen men having chosen Elizabeths, and another two, Marys, we are forever attempting to distinguish them one from the other. My elder brother James had brought his unfortunate wife, Mary, to stay with us in our cramped lodgings over Christmastide. This was meant to be a great treat: but my relief at the James Austens departure far outweighed any pleasure won from their arrival.
Frank grasped my elbow. “Steady, Jane. The skiff approaches.”
A long, low-slung boat with two ruddy-faced fishwives at the oars had swung alongside the Quay. It bobbed like a cockleshell in the tide, and I should as readily have stepped into an inverted umbrella. I summoned my courage, however, so as not to disoblige my excellent brother.
“Pray take my arm,” Frank urged. “It is best not to step heavily — and not directly onto the gunwales, mind, or you shall have us all over! Just so — and there you are settled. Capital.”
Frank stowed himself neatly beside me on the damp wooden slat that served as seat, and began to whistle for wind. I attempted to ease my grip on the skiff.
As the two women bent their backs to the task of conveying us across the water to the single-masted hoy — which, despite its diminutive nature, Frank asserted might serve as a respectable gunboat in anything but home waters — I struggled to maintain my composure. I had never crossed a body of water, much less been aboard a ship, before; but I refused to earn the contempt of the British Navy. I should throw myself overboard rather than admit to a craven heart, or plead for a return to shore.
It had long been my chief desire to be swung in a chair to the very deck of one of my brothers’ commands — the Canopus, when Frank captained her, or the Indian, should Charles ever return from the North American Station. But we had always lived beyond the reach of naval ports; and our visits to the sea were matters of bathing and Assemblies. My mother’s decision to settle with Frank in Southampton, a mere seventeen miles from the great naval yard at Portsmouth, must ensure frequent occasion for familiarising myself with ships, and sailors’ customs, and all the ardent matter of my brothers’ lives, that have demanded such sacrifice, and conveyed so much of glory and regret.
Charles, my particular little brother, has been Master and Commander of his sloop in the Atlantic for nearly three years — but is not yet made Post Captain. When he will find occasion for an act of brazen daring, a risk to life and limb such as might draw the Admiralty’s approval, none can say. Charles may only hope for another American war. The Admiralty’s attention has heretofore been trained upon my elder brother Frank — who has been Post Captain these seven years. But of late, the Admiralty appears to have found even him wanting.
Frank suffered the distinction of serving under the Great Man, Admiral Lord Nelson. His third-rate eighty-gun ship, the Canopus, was destined to meet the combined French and Spanish fleets in 1805; but the Admiral, insensible that he should fall in with the Enemy off the headland of Trafalgar, and being desperately in need of water and stores, despatched my brother to Gibraltar in search of the same. Frank returned several days after the decisive action, to discover some twenty-four hundred British sailors wounded or dead, nineteen of the enemy’s vessels captured or destroyed, the remnant of the Combined Fleet under flight — and the Great Man, wounded mortally by a musket shot.
Frank’s failure to engage the Enemy in so glorious a battle — a day that shall live forever in English hearts — was a bitter blow. Not all his subsequent victory at Santo Domingo, his prize money and silver trophies, his marriage to little Mary Gibson, may supply the want of distinction — though the affectionate hearts of his sisters must rejoice in the intervention of Divine Providence.
The skiff mounted a determined hillock of wave, slapped firmly into the trough beyond, and sent a shower of frigid green water into my lap. I could not suppress a slight exclamation of shock at the sudden wet and cold, and Frank’s head came round to stare at me. I smiled weakly in return, my hands still clenched on the rough wood of my seat, and hoped desperately that I should not disgrace myself.
The hoy loomed — the oars were shipped — and Frank’s warm hand was reaching for my own. With a deep breath to hide my trepidation, I picked my way across the skiff’s slatted bottom — quite in want of caulk, and welling with water — and allowed myself to be hauled upwards by the hoy’s master.
A weathered face, pinched and crimson with cold, the eyes two agates against the light of morning — if he was akin to most of the seamen plying the Solent from Southampton to Portsmouth, he would bear his female supercargo little affection. But his boat, in comparison with the lighter craft I had just quitted, appeared ample and sturdy; I heaved a shuddering sigh of relief and sank against the side. Frank jumped across the widening gap of water between skiff and hoy, clapped the master about the shoulders, and said, “What do you make it, Finley? Two hours, in this wind?”
“She’s bearing south-south-east, Captain,” the master replied, with a doubtful eye to his straining canvas. “We’re forced to beat and beat, I don’t reckon.”
“The wind will shift in another quarter-hour,” my brother replied, “and then we shall see what your poor tub might do. Crack on, Finley!”
With a grin in my direction, Frank swung himself into the bow, as though the frigid spray could not daunt him, nor the February wind cut through his good naval coat. It is a trifle worn, that coat — he is the sort of man who considers of refurbishing his dress only when it is in rags about him — but the gold epaulettes of his rank shone brightly upon his shoulders. His face was thrust out into the gusts and swell, his whole countenance alight, and his aspect that of a hunting dog let off its lead. My heart leapt with pleasure at the sight of him. It has been many months since Frank was turned onshore, and the landsman’s lot does not sit well with him. But on this raw wintry morning he was once again the brave and reckless older brother I adored as a girl — the boy we named Fly for his trick of spurring his horses to breakneck speed — the boy who set off alone for Portsmouth at the age of twelve, and could never bear dry land thereafter. Frank has more courage at the bone and more good English commonsense than any other Austen; and though he spares less thought for weighty matters than my brother James, and wastes less on frivolous ones than brother Henry, he is quite the truest heart I have ever known.
The mate hauled anchor; the sails rose up the mast; the canvas swelled with wind; and faster than I could have believed, Southampton slipped away behind us. My involuntary grip on the hoy’s gunwales eased; I breathed more steadily, and was capable once more of observation. Never had I been privileged to travel so swiftly, in such relative silence. No wheels rattled, no horses’ hooves rang like mallets on the paving-stones; we were sped by merest air, the fresh strong wind buffeting my bonnet. I grinned foolishly at the hoy’s master, as though he were an angel bent on conveying me to Paradise.