Authors: Patrick O'Brian
The Far Side of the World
W.W. Norton & Company
New York * London
Perhaps few authors are wholly original as far as their plots are concerned; indeed Shakespeare seems to have invented almost nothing, while Chaucer borrowed from both the living and the dead. And to come down to a somewhat different plane, the present writer is even more derivative, since for these books he has in general kept most doggedly to recorded actions, nourishing his fancy with log-books, dispatches, letters, memoirs, and contemporary reports. But general appropriation is not quite the same thing as downright plagiary, and in passing it must be confessed that the description of a storm's first aspect on p. 308 is taken straight from William Hickey, whose words did not seem capable of improvement.
If these tales are to continue, however, it is clear that the writer will soon have originality thrust upon him, for he is running short of history. Some ten or eleven years ago a respectable American publisher suggested that he should write a book about the Royal Navy of Nelson's time; he was happy to agree, since both the period and the subject were congenial, and he quickly produced the first of this series, a novel based upon Lord Cochrane's early days in command of the Speedy, which provided him with one of the most spectacular single-ship actions of the war as well as a mass of authentic detail. But had the writer known how much pleasure he was to take in this kind of writing, and how many books were to follow the first, he would certainly have started the sequence much earlier. For the 14-gun Speedy did not capture the 32-gun Gamo until 1801 and this was followed by the ill-judged Peace of Amiens, which left enterprising sailors less time to distinguish themselves than they could have wished and deprived later writers of a great deal of raw material. Historical time has not yet run out for these tales, and in the present book the naval historian will detect an echo of HMS Phoebe's pursuit of the USN Essex; but even in the early nineteenth century the year contained only twelve months, and it is possible that in the near future the author (if his readers will bear with him) may be led to make use of hypothetical years, rather like those hypothetical moons used in the calculation of Easter: an 1812a as it were or even an 1812b.
Yet if he should do so it will be strict chronology alone that is affected; he will continue to respect historical accuracy and speak of the Royal Navy as it was, making use of contemporary documents: the reader will meet no basilisks that destroy with their eyes, no Hottentots without religion, polity, or articulate language, no Chinese perfectly polite, and completely skilled in all sciences, no wholly virtuous, ever victorious or necessarily immortal heroes; and should any crocodiles appear, he undertakes that they shall devour their prey without tears.
'Pass the word for Captain Aubrey, pass the word for Captain Aubrey,' cried a sequence of voices, at first dim and muffled far aft on the flagship's maindeck, then growing louder and more distinct as the call wafted up to the quarterdeck and so along the gangway to the forecastle, where Captain Aubrey stood by the starboard thirty-two-pounder carronade contemplating the Emperor of Morocco's purple galley as it lay off Jumper's Bastion with the vast grey and tawny Rock of Gibraltar soaring behind it, while Mr Blake, once a puny member of his midshipman's berth but now a tall, stout lieutenant almost as massive as his former captain, explained the new carriage he had invented, a carriage that should enable carronades to fire twice as fast, with no fear of oversetting, twice as far, and with perfect accuracy, thus virtually putting an end to war.
Only a flag-officer could 'pass the word' for a post-captain, and Jack Aubrey had been dreading the summons ever since the Caledonia came in, a little after dawn: within minutes of receiving it he would have to tell the Commander-in Chief how it came about that his orders had not been obeyed. Seeing that Aubrey's small, elderly, but sweet-sailing frigate Surprise was to return from Malta to England, there to be laid up or sold out of the service or even sent to the breaker's yard, Admiral Sir Francis Ives, the Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, had directed him to go by way of Zambra on the Barbary Coast, there to reason with the Dey of Mascara, the ruler of those parts, who showed a tendency to side with the French and who had uttered threats of hostile action if he were not given an enormous sum of money: if the Dey proved stubborn, Aubrey was to embark the British consul and to tell his Highness that the instant any of these threats were carried into action, all ships bearing the Mascarene flag should be seized, burnt, sunk, or otherwise destroyed, and the Dey's ports blocked up. Aubrey was to sail in company with the Pollux, an even older sixty-gun ship that was carrying Rear-Admiral Harte back to England as a passenger, but the mission to the Dey was his alone; and having accomplished it he was to report to the Commander-in-Chief at Gibraltar. It seemed to him a fairly straightforward assignment, particularly as he had an unusually well qualified political adviser in his surgeon, Dr Maturin, and off the mouth of Zambra Bay he left the Pollux with an easy mind, or at least with a mind as easy as was right in one who had spent most of his life on the sea, that dangerous, utterly unreliable element, with nothing but a plank between him and eternity.
But they had been betrayed. At some point the Commander-in-Chief's plan had become known to the enemy and a French ship of the line together with two frigates appeared from the windward, in evident collusion with the Mascarenes; the Dey's forts had fired on the Surprise; and in the subsequent activity Aubrey had neither had an interview with the ruler nor embarked Mr Consul Eliot. The Pollux, closely engaged by the French eighty-gun ship, had blown up with the loss of all hands, and although by her brilliant sailing qualities the Surprise had run clear, Jack Aubrey had in fact accomplished nothing of what he had been sent to do. To be sure, he could represent that in the course of the manoeuvres he had wrecked a heavy French frigate by luring her over a reef, and that the Pollux had so mauled her adversary in the fight and had so shattered her in blowing up that there was little likelihood of her ever regaining Toulon; but he had nothing tangible to show, and although he was satisfied in his own mind that materially the Royal Navy had gained rather than lost by the encounter he was by no means sure that the Commander-in-Chief would see it in the same light. And he was all the more uneasy since adverse winds had delayed his run from Zambra Bay to Gibraltar, where he had expected to find the Commander-in-Chief, and since he could not tell whether the boats he had sent off to Malta and Port Mahon had reached the Admiral in time for him to deal with the crippled Frenchman. Sir Francis had an alarming reputation, not only as a rigid disciplinarian and a right Tartar, but also as one who would break an erring subordinate without compunction. It was also known that Sir Francis longed for victory even more than most commanders-in-chief: for evident, positive victory that would please public opinion and even more the present ministry, the effective source of honours. How the Zambra action would appear in this respect Jack could not decide. 'Another couple of minutes will tell me, however,' he said to himself as he hurried aft in the wake of a nervous, inaudible youngster, keeping his best white tights and silk stockings well clear of the buckets of pitch that were carrying forward.
But he was mistaken: the call had originated in the other flag-officer aboard, the Captain of the Fleet, who was confined to his cabin by the present bout of influenza but who wished Jack to know that his wife had taken a house no great way from Ashgrove Cottage, and that she should be very happy in Mrs Aubrey's acquaintance. Their children were much of the same age, he said; and then, they being fond parents and long, long from home, each gave the other a pretty detailed account of his brood, while the Captain of the Fleet showed his daughters' birthday letters, received some two months ago, and a little scrubby rat-gnawn penwiper, the work of his eldest's unaided hand.
During this time the Commander-in-Chief himself carried on with what was left of his paper-work, a task that he had begun just after sunrise. 'This to Captain Lewis, and his damn-fool words about an enquiry,' he said. '
Your letter has not contributed in the smallest degree to alter the opinion I had formed of your having determined to avail yourself of this influenza to get the Gloucester again into port. The most serious charge made against you is the savage rudeness offered to Dr Harrington on the quarterdeck of the Gloucester, wholly unbecoming the character of her commander and particularly reprehensible in the desponding state in which your improper conduct has placed the crew of His Majesty's ship under your command. If you continue to court enquiry in the style of the letter I am replying to, it will come sooner than you are aware of. I am,
Sir, your most obedient servant."
Damned rogue, to try to bully me.' The two clerks made no reply to this, but kept their pens plying fast, the one on a fair copy of the previous letter, the other on a rough of this, though the other inhabitants of the great cabin, Mr Yarrow, the Admiral's secretary, and Mr Pocock, his political adviser responded with a 'Tut, tut, tut'.
'To Captain Bates,' said Sir Francis, as soon as one pen had stopped squeaking.
The very disorderly state of His Majesty's ship under your command, obliges me to require that neither yourself nor any of your officers are to go on shore on what is called pleasure.
I am, Sir, etc."
And now a memorandum. "There being reason to apprehend that a number of women have been clandestinely brought from England in several ships, more particularly so in those which have arrived in the Mediterranean in this last and the present year, the respective captains are required by the Admiral to admonish those ladies upon the waste of water, and other disorders committed by them, and to make known to all, that on the first proof of water being obtained for washing from the scuttle-butt or otherwise, under false pretences, every woman in the fleet who had not been admitted under the authority of the Admiralty or the Commander-in Chief, will be shipped for England by the first convoy, and the officers are strictly enjoined to watch vigilantly their behaviour, and to see that no waste or improper consumption of water happen in the future."
He turned to the second clerk, now ready to write. 'To the respective captains: "The Admiral having observed a flippancy in the behaviour of officers when coming upon the Caledonia's quaterdeck, and sometimes in receiving orders from a superior officer, and that they do not pull off their hats, and some not even touch them: it is his positive direction, that any officer who shall in future so forget this essential duty of respect and subordination, be admonished publicly; and he expects the officers of the Caledonia will set the example by taking off their hats, and not touch them with an air of negligence."'
To Mr Pocock he observed, 'The young people now coming up are for the most part frippery and gimcrack. I wish we could revive the old school,' and then continued, '"To the respective captains: the Commander-in-Chief having seen several officers of the fleet on shore dressed like shop-keepers, in coloured clothes, and others wearing round hats, with their uniforms, in violation of the late order from the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, does positively direct, that any officer offending against this wholesome and necessary regulation in future, is put under arrest, and reported to the Admiral, and, let the sentence of a court-martial upon such offenders be what it may, that he is never permitted to go ashore while under the command of Sir Francis Ives."'
While the pens flew on he picked up a letter and said to Mr Pocock, 'Here is J. S. begging me to intercede with the Royal Bird again. I wonder at it: and I cannot but think that this form of application must end ill. I wonder at it, I say; for surely, with such a high mind and unrivalled pretensions, a peerage is an object beneath him.'
Mr Pocock was a little embarrassed to reply, particularly as he knew that the clerks, in spite of their busy pens, were listening intently; for it was common knowledge throughout the fleet that Sir Francis longed to be a lord, thus rivalling his brothers, and that he had fought with unparalleled fury for the Mediterranean command, as the most likely means to that end. 'Perhaps...' he began, but he was interrupted by a scream of barbarous trumpets close at hand, and stepping over to the stern-gallery he said, 'Bless me, the Emperor's envoy has put off already.'
'God damn and blast the man,' cried the Admiral, looking angrily at the clock. 'Let him go and ... no: we must not offend the Moors. I shall not have time for Aubrey. Pray tell him so, Mr Yarrow - make my excuses - force majeure -do the civil thing - bid him to dinner and let him bring Dr Maturin; or let them come tomorrow morning, if that don't suit.'
It did not suit. Aubrey was infinitely concerned, but it was not in his power to dine with the Commander-in-Chief today; he was already engaged, engaged to a lady. At Jack's first words to Mr Yarrow the Captain of the Fleet's eyebrows shot up under his nightcap; at his last, the only excuse that in a naval context could acquit him of being a wicked contumelious discontented froward mutinous dog, the eyebrows reappeared in their usual place and the Captain of the Fleet said, 'I wish I were engaged to dine with a lady. I may draw a rear-admiral's pay,, but I have not seen one, apart from the bosun's wife, since Malta; and what with this damned influenza and having to give an example I do not suppose I shall see another until we drop anchor in the Grand Harbour again, alas. There is something wonderfully comfortable about having a lady's legs under one's table, Aubrey.'