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Authors: Patrick O'Brian

The Letter of Marque

BOOK: The Letter of Marque
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The Letter of Marque
Patrick O'Brian


The Letter of Marque

W.W. Norton & Company

New York * London


Ever since Jack Aubrey had been dismissed from the service, ever since his name, with its now meaningless seniority, had been struck off the list of post-captains, it had seemed to him that he was living in a radically different world; everything was perfectly familiar, from the smell of seawater and tarred rigging to the gentle heave of the deck under his feet, but the essence was gone and he was a stranger.

Other broken sea-officers, condemned by court-martial, might be worse off: indeed, two had come aboard without so much as a sea-chest between them, and compared with them he was uncommonly fortunate, which should perhaps have been a comfort to his mind - it was none to his heart. Nor was the fact that he was innocent of the crime for which he had been sentenced.

Yet there was no denying that materially he was well off. His old but beautiful frigate the Surprise had been sold out of the service, and Stephen Maturin had bought her as a private ship of war, a letter of marque, to cruise upon the enemy; and Jack Aubrey was in command.

She was now lying at single anchor in Shelmerston, an out-of-the-way port with an awkward bar and a dangerous tide-race, avoided by the Navy and by merchantmen but much frequented by smugglers and privateers, many of whose fast, rakish, predatory vessels could be seen along the quay. Turning in his mechanical walk on the starboard side of the quarterdeck, Jack glanced at the village and once again he tried to make out what it was that made Shelmerston so like the remaining pirate and buccaneer settlements he had seen long ago in the remoter West Indies and Madagascar when he was a youngster in this same Surprise. Shelmerston had no waving coconut-palms, no brilliant coral strand; and yet there was this likeness; perhaps it lay in the large and flashy public houses, the general air of slovenliness and easy money, the large number of whores, and the feeling that only a singularly determined and well-armed press-gang would ever make an attempt upon it. He also noticed that two boats had put off for the Surprise and that each was stretching out to reach her first: neither however contained Dr Maturin, the ship's surgeon (few people knew that he was also her owner), who was to come aboard today. One of these boats was coxed by an extraordinarily pretty girl with dark red hair, newly come upon the town and enjoying every minute of it; she was a great favourite with the privateers-men and they responded to her shrill cries so heroically that one broke his oar. Although Jack Aubrey could never fairly have been described as much of a whoremonger, he was no celibate and from his earliest youth until the present he had taken the liveliest pleasure in beauty, and this spirited girl, half standing and all alive with excitement, was absurdly beautiful; but now he only observed the fact, and in a genuinely indifferent tone he said to Tom Pullings, 'Do not let that woman come aboard: take only three of the very best.'

He resumed his pensive walk while Pullings, the bosun, the gunner and Bonden, his own coxswain, put the men through their paces. They had to lay aloft, timed by a log-glass, loose and furl a topgallant sail, then traverse and point a great gun, fire a musket at a bottle hanging from the foreyardarm, and tie a crowned double wall-knot before the eyes of a crowd of thorough-going seamen. Ordinarily, manning a ship, a King's ship, was an anxious business, with the impress-service doing what it could, with humble prayers for a draft of sometimes criminal nondescripts from the receiving-ship, and with the boats cruising in the Channel to take hands out of homeward-bound merchantmen or to raid towns along the coast, often with so little success that one had to put to sea a hundred short of complement. Here in Shelmerston on the other hand the Surprise might have been fitting out in Paradise. Not only were all marine stores delivered the same tide by the willing and competitive chandlers whose well-furnished warehouses lined the quay, but the hands needed no pressing at all, no solicitation at the rendezvous, no beating of the drum. Jack Aubrey had long been known among seamen as a successful frigate-captain, a fighting captain who had been exceptionally fortunate in the article of prize-money, so fortunate that his nickname was Lucky Jack Aubrey; and the news that his own frigate, a remarkable sailer when skilfully handled, was to be converted into a letter of marque with himself in command brought privateersmen flocking to offer their services. He could pick and choose, which never happened aboard King's ships in wartime; and now he lacked only three of the number he had set as the proper complement. Many of the foremast jacks and petty officers were old Surprises who had been set free when the frigate was paid off and who had presumably avoided the press since then, though he had a strong suspicion that several had deserted from other King's ships, in some cases with the connivance of particular friends of his - Heneage Dundas, for example - who commanded them: and there were of course the personal followers such as his steward and coxswain and a few others who had never left him. Some of the men he did not know were from merchant ships, but most were smugglers and privateersmen, prime seamen, tough, independent, not much accustomed to discipline, still less to its outward, more ceremonial forms (though nearly all had been pressed at one time or another), yet eager and willing to serve under a captain they respected. And at this point Jack Aubrey was, in a privateersman's eye, an even more respectable commander than he himself might have supposed: he was leaner than he had been but he was still uncommonly tall and broadshouldered; his open, florid, cheerful face had grown older, less full; it was now lined and habitually sombre, with a touch of latent wickedness, and anyone used to the abrupt ways of the sea could instantly tell that this was not a face to be trifled with: if such a man were put out the blow would come without a moment's warning and be damned to the consequences - dangerous because past caring.

The Surprise now probably had a more efficient, more professional ship's company than any vessel of her size afloat, which might well have filled her captain's heart with joy: and indeed when he reflected upon the fact it did bring a certain amount of conscientious pleasure and what joy the heart could hold; this was not very much. It might have been said that Jack Aubrey's heart had been sealed off, so that he could accept his misfortune without its breaking; and that the sealing-off had turned him into a eunuch as far as emotion was concerned. The explanation would have been on the simple side, yet whereas in former times Captain Aubrey, like his hero Nelson and so many of his contemporaries, had been somewhat given to tears - he had wept with joy at the masthead of his first command; tears had sometimes wetted the lower part of his fiddle when he played particularly moving passages; and cruel sobs had racked him at many a shipmate's funeral by land or sea - he was now as hard and dry-eyed as a man could well be. He had parted from Sophie and the children at Ashgrove Cottage with no more than a constriction in his throat which made his farewells sound painfully harsh and unfeeling. And for that matter his fiddle lay there still in its wax-clothed case, untouched since he came aboard.

'These are the three best hands, sir, if you please,' said Mr Pullings, taking off his hat. 'Harvey, Fisher and Whitaker.'

They touched their foreheads, three cousins with much the same long-nosed, weather-beaten, knowing faces, all smugglers and excellent seamen - none others could have passed the short but exceedingly severe examination - and looking at them with a certain mitigated satisfaction Aubrey said 'Harvey, Fisher and Whitaker, I am glad to see you aboard. But you understand it is only on liking and on passing the surgeon?' He glanced again at the shore, but no surgeon's boat did he see. 'And you understand the terms of pay, shares, discipline and punishment?"

'We do indeed, sir. Which the coxswain read them out to us.'

'Very well. You may bring your chests aboard.' He resumed his steady to and fro, repeating Harvey, Fisher, Whitaker: it was a captain's duty to know his men's names and something of their circumstances and hitherto he had found little difficulty even in a ship of the line with six or seven hundred aboard. He still knew every one of his Surprises of course, shipmates not only in the last far Pacific voyage but sometimes for many years before; but the new men escaped his memory most shamefully and even his officers called for an effort. Not Tom Pullings, naturally, once one of Aubrey's midshipmen and now a half-pay commander in the Royal Navy, perfectly unblemished but with no hope of a ship, who, on indeterminate leave from the service, was acting as his first mate; nor the second and third mates, both of them former King's officers with whom he had been more or less acquainted and whose courts-martial were clear in his mind - West for duelling and Davidge for an unhappy complex affair in which he had signed a dishonest purser's books without looking at them - but he could remember his bosun only by the association of his massive body with his name, Bulkeley; fortunately no carpenter ever objected to being called Chips nor any gunner Master Gunner; and no doubt the unfamiliar petty officers would come in time.

To and fro, to and fro, looking towards the shore at each turn, until at last the seaweed high on his cable and the run of the water told him that if he did not get under way precious soon he would miss his tide. 'Mr Pullings,' he said, 'let us move outside the bar.'

'Aye aye, sir,' said Pullings, and he cried 'Mr Bulkeley, all hands to weigh anchor.'

The quick cutting notes of the bosun's call and the rush of feet followed instantly, a fair proof that the Shelmerston men were well acquainted both with the frigate's draught and their own uneasy bar. The messenger was brought to, the capstan-bars were shipped, pinned and swifted as briskly as though regular Surprises alone were at it; but as the capstan began to turn and the ship to glide across the harbour towards her anchor, some of the hands struck up the shanty

Walk her round and round she goes

Way oh, way oh

which had never happened in her life as a King's ship, working songs not being countenanced in the Royal Navy. Pullings looked sharply at Jack, who shook his head and murmured 'Let them sing.'

So far there had been no bad blood between the old Surprises and the new hands and he would give almost anything to prevent it arising. He and Pullings had already done their best by mixing the gun-crews and the watches, but he had no doubt that by far the most important factor in this strangely peaceful relation between two dissimilar groups was the unparalleled situation: all those concerned, particularly the Surprises, seemed amazed by it, uncertain what to say or what to think, there being no formula to hand; and if only this could last until some three- or four-day blow in the chops of the Channel or better still until a successful action began to weld them into a single body, there were fair prospects of a happy ship.

'Up and down, sir,' called West from the forecastle.

'Foretopmen,' said Jack, raising his voice. 'D'ye hear me, there?' They would have been mere blocks if they had not, for the 'there' came back loud and clear from the housefronts at the bottom of the bay. 'Away aloft.' The foreshrouds were dark with racing men. 'Let fall: let fall.'

The topsail flashed out; the larboard watch sheeted it home and without a word they ran to the halliards. The yard rose smoothly; the foretopsail filled; the Surprise had just enough way on her to trip her anchor, and in a pure, leisurely curve she stood for the bar, already a nasty colour in the green-grey sea, with white about its edges.

'The very middle of the channel, Gillow,' said Jack to the man at the wheel.

'The very middle it is, sir," said Gillow, a Shelmerstonian, glancing left and right and easing her a spoke or so.

In the open sea the Surprise folded her wings again, dropped the anchor from her cathead, veered away a reasonable scope and rode easy. It had been a simple operation, one that Jack had seen many thousand times, but it had run perfectly smoothly, without the slightest fuss or fault, and it pleased him. This was just as well, since for some considerable time a feeling of indignation at Maturin's lateness had been growing in him: his huge misfortune he could, if not accept, then at least endure without railing or complaint, but small things were capable of irritating him as much as ever they did - indeed a great deal more - and he had prepared a curt note for Stephen, to be left on shore, appointing another rendezvous in a fortnight's time.

'Mr Davidge,' he said, 'I am going below. If the Admiral should come round the headland, pray let me know directly." Admiral Russell, who lived at Allacombe, the next cove south but one, had sent word to say that wind and weather permitting he would give himself the pleasure of waiting on Mr Aubrey in the course of the afternoon and that he hoped Mr Aubrey would spend the evening at Allacombe with him: he sent his compliments to Dr Maturin, and if he was aboard, would be delighted to see him too.

'Directly, sir,' said Davidge, and then more hesitantly, 'Just how should we receive him, sir?'

BOOK: The Letter of Marque
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