Read Desolation Island Online

Authors: Patrick O'Brian

Tags: #Historical Fiction

Desolation Island (3 page)

'Well,' said Jack, 'and now you say "the horrible old Leopard". To be sure, she was something of a slug, and a ramshackle old slug, when Tom Andrews had her. But the Dockyard has taken her in hand - a most thoroughgoing overhaul - Snodgrass's diagonal braces - new spirketting -Roberts's iron-plate knees throughout - I spare you the details - and now she is the finest fifty-gun ship afloat, not excepting Grampus. Certainly the finest fourth-rate in the service!' The finest fourth-rate in the service: perhaps.

But as Jack knew very well, the fourth-rates were a poor and declining class; they had been excluded from the line of battle this last half-century and more; the Leopard had never been a shining example of them at any time. Jack knew her faults as well as any man; he knew that she was laid down and half built in 1776; that she had remained in that unsatifactory state, quietly rotting in the open, for ten years or so; and that she had then been taken to Sheerness, where they eventually launched her on her undistinguished career in 1790. But he had watched her overhaul with a very attentive, professional eye, and although he knew she would never be an outstanding performer he was sure she was seaworthy: and above all he wanted her not for herself but for her destination: he longed for unknown seas, and the Spice Islands.

'The Leopard had quite a number of decks, as I recall,' said Stephen.

'Why, yes: she is a fourth-rate, so she is a two-decker -roomy, almost as roomy as a ship of the line. You will have all the room in the world, Stephen; it will not be like being crammed up tight in a frigate. I must say that the Admiralty has done the handsome thing by me, for once.'

'I think you should have had a first-rate,' said Sophie. 'And a peerage.'

Jack gave her a very loving smile and went on, 'They offered me the choice between Ajax, a new seventy-four on the stocks, or the Leopard. The seventy-four will be a very fine ship, as good a seventy-four as you could wish; but she would mean the Mediterranean, under Harte; and there's no distinction in the Mediterranean nowadays. Nor no fortune, either.' Here again Jack was a little devious, for although it was quite true that at this stage of the war there was little for a sailor in the Mediterranean the presence of Admiral Harte had more importance than he chose to explain. In former days Jack had cuckolded the Admiral, an unscrupulous, revengeful man who would not hesitate to break him if he could. During his naval career, Jack had made a great many friends in the service, but he had also made a surprising number of enemies for so amiable a man: some had been jealous of his success; some (and these were his seniors) had found him too independent, even insubordinate in his youth; some disliked his politics (he hated a Whig); and some had the same grudge as Admiral Harte, or fancied they did.

'You have all the distinction a man could wish, Jack,' said Sophie. 'Such dreadful wounds: and quite enough money.'

'If Nelson had been of your mind, sweetheart, he would have cried quits after St Vincent. We should have had no Nile, and where would Jack Aubrey have been then? A mere lieutenant to the end of his days. No, no: a man can't have enough distinction in his line of service. And I don't know he can ever have enough money either, if it comes to that. But, however, Leopard is bound for the East Indies- not that there is likely to be much fighting there,' he added with a glance at Sophie, 'and the charming point about it is that a curious situation has arisen at Botany Bay. Leopard is to go south about, deal with the state of affairs in those parts, and then join Admiral Drury somewhere in the neighbourhood of Penang, making observations on her way. Think of the opportunities, Stephen - thousands of miles of almost unknown sea and coastline - wombats on shore for those that like them, because although this is not one of your leisurely exploring voyages, I am sure there would be time for a wombat or a kangaroo, when some important anchorage is to be surveyed - islands never seen, for sure, and their positions to be laid down - and in about a hundred and fifty east, twenty south, we should be in the full path of the eclipse, if only our times coincide -think of the birds, Stephen, think of the beetles and cassowaries, to say nothing of the Tasmanian Devil! There has not been such an opportunity for a philosophical chap since the days of Cook and Sir Joseph Banks.'

'It sounds the sweetest voyage,' said Stephen, 'and I have always longed to see New Holland. Such a fauna -monotremes, marsupials... But tell me, what is this curious situation to which you advert - what is the state of affairs at Botany Bay?'

'You remember Breadfruit Bligh?'

'I do not.'

'Of course you do, Stephen. Bligh, that was sent to Tahiti in the Bounty before the war, to collect breadfruit-trees for the West Indies.'

'Yes, yes! He had an excellent botanist with him, David Nelson: a most promising young man, alas. I was looking into his work on the bromeliads only the other day.'

'Then you will remember that his people mutinied on him, and took his ship away?'

'Sure, I have some hazy recollection of it. They preferred the charms of the Tahitian women to their duty. He survived, did he not?'

'Yes, but only because he was a most prodigious seaman. They turned him adrift with precious little food in a six-oared boat, loaded to the gunwales with nineteen men, and he navigated her close on four thousand miles to Timor. A most astonishing feat! But perhaps he is not quite so lucky with his subordinates: some time ago he was made Governor of New South Wales and the news is that his officers have mutinied on him again - they have deposed him and shut him up. Army people for the most part, I believe. The Admiralty don't like it, as you may imagine, and they are sending out an officer of sufficient seniority to deal with the situation and set Bligh up again or bring him home, according to his judgement.'

'What kind of man is Mr Bligh?'

'I have never met him, but I know he sailed with Cook as master. Then he was given a commission, one of those rare promotions from warrant-rank: a reward, I dare say, for his uncommon seamanship. Then he did well at Camperdown, taking the Director, sixty-four, right in among the Dutch ships of the line and then lying alongside their admiral - as bloody a fight as ever you could wish. And he did well at Copenhagen too: Nelson mentioned him particularly.'

'Perhaps it is still another instance of a man's being corrupted by authority.'

'It may be so. But although I cannot tell you much about him, I know a man who can. Do you remember Peter Heywood?'

'Peter Heywood? A post-captain who dined with us aboard the Lively? The gentleman upon whom Killick poured the boiling jam sauce, and whom I treated for a not inconsiderable burn?'

'That's the man,' said Jack.

'How did the sauce come to be boiling?' asked Sophie. 'The Port-Admiral was with us, and he always says, jam sauce ain't worth eating if it don't boil; so we shipped a little stove just abaft the scuttle of the coach. Yes, that's the man: the only post-captain in the Navy who was ever condemned to death for mutiny. He was one of Bligh's midshipmen in the Bounty , and one of the few men or boys to be taken.'

'How did he come to commit so rash an act?' asked Stephen. 'He seemed to me a mild, peaceable gentleman; he bore the Admiral's strictures on his flinging the jam about with becoming modesty; and he bore the jam itself with so Spartan a fortitude that I should have conceived him incapable of acting in such an inconsiderate manner. Was it the petulance of youth, or a sudden disgust, or a dusky amour?'

'I never asked,' said Jack. 'All I know is that he and four others were ordered to be hanged, and I saw three of them run up to the yardarm of the Brunswick with a nightcap over their eyes when I was a youngster in the Tonnant. But the King said it was all stuff to hang young Peter Heywood. So he was pardoned, and presently Black Dick Howe, who had always been fond of him, gave him his commission. I never did learn the ins and outs of it, although Heywood and I were shipmates in the Pox: it is a delicate thing to touch upon, a court-martial - and such a court-martial But we can certainly ask him about Bligh when he comes to the house on Thursday: it is important to know what kind of a man we have to deal with. In any case, I want to ask him about those waters. He knows them well, because he was wrecked in the Endeavour Straits. And even more than that, I want him to tell me about Leopard's little ways: he commanded her in the year five. Or was it six?'

Sophie's attentive ear caught a remote howl, a howl far fainter than it would have been before Ashgrove Cottage burst its seams, but still a howl. 'Jack,' said she, as she hurried from the room, 'you must show Stephen the plans of the orangery. Stephen knows all about oranges.'

'So I shall,' said Jack. 'But first, Stephen - a little more coffee? There is plenty in the pot - first let me tell you about an even more interesting plan. Turn your mind to the wood where the honey-buzzards are nesting.'

'Yes, yes. The honey-buzzards,' cried Stephen, brightening at once. 'I have brought a jointed booth for them.'

'What do they want with a jointed booth? They have a perfectly respectable nest.'

'It is a portable booth. I mean to set it up at the edge of the wood, and advance it by degrees to the rise that dominates their tree. There I shall sit at my ease, unseen, protected from the vicissitudes of the weather, watching the progress of their domestic economy. It is supplied with flaps, and every convenience for making observations.'

'Well, I showed you the Roman mine-shafts, I remember - miles of 'em, and mortal dangerous - but do you know what the Romans mined there?'

'Lead.'

'And do you know what all those lumpy hills are? One of them is the very place where you mean to set up your booth.'

'Dross.'

'Well, Stephen,' said Jack, leaning forward with a very knowing look indeed, 'now I shall tell you something you do not know, for once. That dross is full of lead; and what is more, that lead contains silver. The Romans' way of smelting did not extract it all, no, not by a chalk as long as your arm, and there it lies, thousands and thousands of tons of valuable dross just waiting to be treated by Kimber's new process.'

'Kimber's new process?'

'Yes. I dare say you have heard of him - a very brilliant fellow. He proceeds by lixiviation with some particular chemicals and then by cupellation according to principles discovered by himself. The lead pays for the working, and the silver is pure profit. The scheme would answer even if there were only one part of lead in one hundred and thirty-seven of dross, and one part of silver in over ten thousand; and on the average of close on a hundred random samples, our dross contains more than seventeen times as much!'

'I am amazed. I did not know the Romans ever mined silver in Britain.'

'Nor did I. But here's the proof.' He unlocked the door of a cupboard under the window-seat and came staggering back with a pig of lead upon which there lay a little silver ingot, four inches long. 'That was the result of no more than a first rough trial,' he said. 'No more than a few cart-loads of dross. Kimber set up a little furnace in the old linhay, and I saw the stuff pour out with my own eyes. I wish you had been there.'

'So do I,' said Stephen.

'Of course, it will call for quite a considerable capital outlay - roads, buildings, proper furnaces and so on - and I had thought of using the girls' portions; but it seems that they can't be touched by reason of the trust - that they have to remain in Consols and Navy five per cents, although I proved that it was mathematically impossible for them to yield a seventh part as much, even going by the poorest sample. I do not mean to set it going full-blast until I am likely to be on shore for some years on end -,

'You foresee this eventuality?'

'Oh yes. Unless I am knocked on the head, or unless I am caught doing something very wicked, I should get my flag in the next five years or so - sooner, if those old fellows at the head of the list did not cling to life so - and since it is harder for an admiral to find employment than a captain, I shall have plenty of time to build up my stud and work my mine. But I do mean to make a start, in a modest way, just to get things running and to lay by a fair amount of treasure. Fortunately Kimber is very moderate in his demands: he leases me the use of his patent, and he will supervise the working of the stuff.'

'For a salary?'

'Yes, and a quarter share. A really modest salary, which I think particularly handsome of him, because there is a Prince Kaunitz begging and praying him to attend to his mines in Transylvania, proposing ten guineas a day and a third share; he showed me all sorts of letters from great men in Germany and Austria. But do not run away with the idea that he is one of your enthusiastic vapouring projectors, promising Peru tomorrow: no, no, he is a very honest fellow, scrupulous to a fault, and he gave me fair warning - we may have to operate at a loss for as much as a year. I quite see that, but I can't wait to begin.'

'Surely you do not mean that you will disturb my buzzards, Jack?'

'Never you fear for them. There's a long way to go yet:

Kimber still needs time and money to make his patents watertight, and for certain experiments; they will have hatched and flown before we have even lit our furnaces, I dare say. And what is more, Stephen, what is more, you will be well on your way to wealth; because although Kimber is unwilling to admit many venturers, I made him promise to let you in on the ground floor, as he puts it.'

'Alas, Jack. What I have is all bespoke, locked up in Spain. Indeed, I am so short in England that it is my intention to beg you to lend me, let us see - 'consulting a paper, 'seven hundred and eighty pounds.'

'Thank you,' he said, when Jack came back with a draft on his banker. 'I am obliged to you, Jack.'

'I beg you will not speak nor think of obligation,' said Jack. 'Between you and me, it would be precious strange to speak of obligation. By the way, that is drawn on London, but for these coming days, there is plenty of gold in the house.'

'No, no, my dear: this is for a particular purpose. For myself, I am as comfortable as my best friend could wish.'

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