Chapter 1: At the Admiralty
At the Admiralty
Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile, who far and wide
A Wand'rer, after Ilium overthrown,
Discover'd various cities, and the mind
And manners learn'd of men, in lands remote.
He num'rous woes on Ocean toss'd, endured,
Anxious to save himself, and to conduct
His followers to their home; yet all his care
Preserved them not;
Now that it was peacetime, the regular meetings of the Navy board had become a trifle boring. Lord Melville looked at his colleagues and harrumphed.
'Gentlemen, I have a proposal to make. Should you be agreeable, it will save us continued trouble in the House, and, if successful, may allow the public to see the Admiralty in a more favourable light.'
'Hear, hear.' Some of his colleagues had woken up. Sir Joseph, across the table, sat up straighter and looked attentive.
'Would there be a lot of money involved?' This from a member of the Treasury.
Melville nodded. 'I am afraid so, yes, but do consider my suggestion. For several years now, a certain Member of Parliament has been speaking on numerous issues with regard to the Royal Navy and its administration. Undoubtedly well meant, but disastrous to some of our causes. So I propose that it would be best to remove him from Parliament for the period of a loop year.'
His lordship looked around and was pleased to see that now he really had the attention of everybody in the meeting.
'You would not be suggesting the demise of Admiral Aubrey?' Sir Joseph was deeply indignant. 'He was one of the best, if not the best, of our captains during the wars. England owes a great deal to him! I need only mention the action against Cacafuego in the year one. How he harassed the French in the Med! And then his invaluable work in Chile! The men and women of England admire him still!'
Melville nodded. 'Nobody, myself included, can see Aubrey and not be profoundly grateful for his loyalty to the country, his bravery and courage.' There were murmurs of agreement all round. 'Still,' his lordship addressed himself to Blaine, 'we all know that Admiral Aubrey, though undoubtedly a hero and a great commander of men, is, alas, involving himself in politics – and his talents do not lie that way.
If he were to have a command of a small squadron – and I propose HMS Suffolk, 74, as his flagship – that would keep him from England for the loop year I have already mentioned; well, we might do not only the country but himself a favour. We are certainly of one mind that it will not do to have Admiral Aubrey ordered to sea with one ship alone…’
‘This scheme you will be proposing will need funds?’ interrupted the Treasury.
‘Do hear me out first! I have already mentioned the advantages. Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed, And genius versatile… Yes, let us send Aubrey on a mission to recreate the travels of the Odyssey, as translated so wonderfully well by Cowper. The admiral’s squadron would be very conveniently placed to protect our convoys and suppress the piracy problem in those Mediterranean waters. Admittedly, a 74 and maybe two or three other ships, brigs will do, would have to be fitted out. Undoubtedly Aubrey will also use his own ships: the tender Ringle and certainly his Surprise.'
Some of the members of the board smiled at the mention of that frigate, old but still a surprisingly good sailer on a bowline.
Melville continued, ‘I am certain he will find many good men to join him, and I expect that he will be joined by Doctor Maturin.’ This with a nod to Sir Joseph Blaine, who showed his agreement with an inclination of his head. ‘Doctor Maturin, a most able physician - we know that he was called in to treat Prince William - is also an eminent natural philosopher. Think what discoveries he may make. Together they may find Troy! And the general public will adore them for it. By this plan, nothing will really be lost, but a great deal gained.’ He looked pointedly at the member for the Treasury, who sighed but nodded.
‘Then it is agreed, gentlemen. I will have the orders to Aubrey and Maturin drafted out presently.’
Chapter 2: On the Surprise
On the Surprise
“Have you heard these latest damn-fool orders from the Admiralty?” asked Jack Aubrey, flinging the packet of papers so wildly back onto the Great Cabin’s desk that its heavy wax seal broke into a dozen pieces.
“The Surprise is to recreate the travels of Ulysses, I find,” replied Stephen Maturin. “Is the Odyssey not your favourite amongst the classical epics, my dear? Think of the opportunity to voyage amongst the islands of the eastern Mediterranean – to visit lands where the juniper-spiced air shimmers in the blessed heat – to find the wild headlands where the gods speak aloud – to see Ithaca itself!”
“Well, there is that, to be sure, but I’ll tell you what it is, Stephen. That fellow Ulysses was no right sailor.”
“Was he not, joy?”
“He was not. Anyone may find themselves lost on a lee shore…”
“Imperviously horrifying,” interrupted Stephen.
Jack frowned at him. “Anyone, as I was saying, may find themselves lost to the impervious horrors of a lee shore, when the tide’s on the flow and the onshore gale howls fit to spring the topmasts, but to be lost for ten years in such a relatively small area is shocking bad seamanship; you cannot tell me it is not.”
“It does look rather like carelessness, indeed. But tell me now, will you, Jack, are you not a little hard on the man? Consider that he had not the British Navy to teach him latitude from longitude.”
“Well, perhaps you are right. Yes, perhaps you are right. After all, he was a mere foreigner, the poor chap, and I am not quite sure…” he peered over Stephen’s shoulder to check that the cabin’s door was tightly shut and that Tom Pullings could not be within earshot, “…I am not quite sure that he would pass, you know.”
“Pass? Pass for a gentleman, do you mean? To be sure, Ulysses was but a king,” observed Stephen wryly.
“Ah, yes, but what foreigners call a king ain’t always quite the same thing as His Britannic Majesty, is it, Stephen? We shall have to be on our guard, make sure we are given the correct number of guns in salute, all the formalities present and correct, that sort of thing. I don’t care for it, but there it is.”
Stephen, who knew perfectly well that Jack cared desperately for naval formalities in all their bewildering variety, merely nodded politely. “If we complete the journey, my dear, we shall have our portraits taken. That is the prize, as you would term it, and a very pretty prize it is too.”
“A prize?” Jack’s eyes gleamed. “But should we not have to sit for a very long time for our portraits to be taken? There are several heavy frigates privateering in the eastern Mediterranean, you know, and was we to stay in one place for any length of time with the wrong sort of canvas spread and paint everywhere and rigging all ahoo, some damned pirate might very well bear down on us before we could beat to quarters, let alone run out the guns.”
“Perhaps they are thinking of that new-fangled method of portraiture, the photo-graphical process. It is said to be most remarkably accurate and rapid, and do but think of how misleading conventional artistry may be; your miniature of Sophie even has the wrong colour of hair, for all love!”
“That is true,” said Jack. “A Daguerreotype might be safer, but might it not be somewhat detrimental to the period flavour?”
“Oh,” cried Stephen, waving a hand airily, “this is fanfiction, and we need not concern ourselves overmuch about mere anachronisms. We are at least in the correct century, and only a few years adrift. Why, Daguerre himself was delivered by the very same accoucheur I recommended to Diana in Paris in 1813!” And he grinned at Jack, daring him to contradict this obvious fib.
“Hmm, well, be that as it may, I can hardly object to photo-graphism, since I am partly based on Lord Cochrane and it is well known that photographical portraits of him are in existence,” replied Jack with dignity.
“Will be in existence, Jack. Such portraits show him as an old man, and you, my dear, are not quite such an age yet; and though no Adonis you have a distinctly firmer chin, an altogether nobler profile. One might almost call you handsome… were it not for the proliferation of scars,” Stephen added, considering his friend objectively.
“Humph. Better to sport an honourable set of scars than to go smirking about like that fellow in the moving-picture. You know, the lubber with the New South Wales accent.”
“Oh Jack, you take offence because he was not quite so egregiously lofty as you, nor so very fair, but he was charismatic, you must allow, and a natural leader of men. I thought him rather attractive than otherwise. Still, you must not pine at your disfigurements. Those whom their authors love die scarred.”
“Is that so? We are both very much loved, then. And you, Stephen? I did not hear you objecting to your portrayal.”
“Why, as to that, joy, why should I object? If the intelligence-agents of our erstwhile enemies are still searching for a small dark ill-favoured Irishman, let us show to them a tall fair Englishman and laugh at their confusion. And as to age, if you would but take the slightest notice of my advice on diet or grog consumption, you might live as long as Lord Cochrane and have your photograph taken without the least anachronism.”
Jack smiled at him. “If you will promise to live as long as Guthrie.”
“I will. I must, to read not only the Beagle diaries – my South American geology is sadly deficient – but the Origin of Species too.”
“So you shall, Stephen. And you should not call yourself ill-favoured, you know. Not as pretty as your double, perhaps, but some people find intelligence attractive in itself, and I do believe that fellow was bluffing – speaking some other man’s words, which is low.”
“I believe he was, and in any case any fool with half an ear can perceive that my accent is quite…”
“Why, look, Stephen!” interrupted Jack. “A shag!”
“Jack, really, I must protest. The rating for this fanfic has not yet been assigned, and there might be midshipmen present in the audience, or even ladies.”
“Ladies?” Jack turned beet-red. “Surely even in the next millennium no respectable female would be reading detailed accounts of gentlemen’s lives? I cannot think it!”
“I believe they may. I have here the Urban Dictionary, being an Account of the Vocabulary of Third-Millennial Youth, and it would appear that the world will be most strange, and the activities of fans the most strange of all. Do not be concerned, Jack, I am almost fluent in their tongue, or shall be by the time we arrive at journey’s end.”
“Well, I was in any case merely pointing out that shag, or cormorant, over there. They lay their eggs inside paper bags, but of course you will know that already.”
Stephen looked dubious. “I believe that to be a vulgar misconception, but it is worth investigating. May we edge the ship closer to those rocks and take a look?”
“We may not. We have not a moment to lose. Ten thousand words to be covered before the end of the year.”
“Bless you, Jack, a year may easily last half a decade in the Aubreyad, and in our meandering way we have covered some fourteen hundred words already. This conversation is a journey in itself. Indeed, if we are not assigned a topic soon, we might arrive at our destination without covering any plot whatsoever, and I for one will not regret the lack of battles, scars and other quite unnecessary vicissitudes.”
“You would not deny the Surprise their battles, I am sure, Stephen. Shall we get on with the story, then? Is it to be told in cartoons, or music, or letters only?”
“Cartoons would be most entertaining, but I am not sure they are permitted under the Articles of Read; nor is it everyone who can understand our musical language. Letters it must be, and for that purpose we have been assigned a parcel of scribes. Hopeless landlubbers, you will think most of them – a draft from the inland counties, but they write a fair hand and I dare say you and Tom will make something of them. We may save the music for later. A duet, perhaps.”
Jack smiled at him. “Later, the perfect duet. First, the story. Never mind the manoeuvres, and let us go straight at it!”
Chapter 3: Aiolos
The squadron’s officers and ship’s companies had stood watch and watch while their admiral drove them all – ships and men alike – across the Mediterranean. Several weeks were spent in sweeping the Ionian and Aegean seas, chasing and capturing or destroying all the pirate vessels in sight, until the waters were made somewhat safer for traders.
Jack Aubrey then shifted from HMS Suffolk into Surprise, because reconnoitring the Mediterranean coasts would be easier in a frigate than in a large 74, and entrusted the flagship and the other ships of the squadron to Captain Harding to cruise up and down the coastline as a deterrent to any would-be privateers. Meanwhile the Surprise was free to roam, something the admiral and the little frigate’s highly trained and experienced men loved most.
They had arrived near a small island. Surprise had had to be moored just outside the natural harbour, it being too shallow to be negotiated by a frigate.
Stephen had asked to be taken ashore to the settlement with the first boat. He had remembered the location, name and profession – Mr Aiolos, a merchant – recommended to him by Sir Joseph as a reliable contact before the ship had sailed from London months ago.
He had returned from the small town with all good wishes from the village elders and Mr Aiolos personally. He brought with him an invitation to the officers and ship’s company to spend time on the island. Jack had pondered the situation as, for once, they had time to spare and had then ordered divisions, even though it was not a Sunday. He had given the men shore-leave, well ordered, not all at once and never overnight.
When Jack had first met Mr Aiolos they exchanged pleasantries. Stephen and the rich merchant had then monopolised the time and talked for hours and hours about the ibis, beetles that lived amongst the flowers, fish that swam in the fountain pond, and the differences and similarities in the spleens of horses, birds and men.
Jack had lost the thread of their conversation, but nevertheless maintained a cheerful façade and a ready smile. The tables had been laden with dishes of lamb, pasta, vegetables and salad: the meat had been tender and succulent, the tomatoes sun-warmed, fresh and straight off the plants, and the feta cheese sprinkled generously with oil and aromatic herbs. For dessert there had been Floating Islands with caramel sauce and toasted almonds, and Jack’s compliments to the cheerful Mrs Aiolos and her even more cheerful and amply bosomed daughters for the meal had been quite unfeigned.
Nearly a month after this first meeting, Jack and Stephen were wandering to the harbour. It had been a charming afternoon, one of many with Mr Aiolos and his family, and after those sunny and relaxing weeks they had finally said their farewells to their gracious hosts.
‘Mr Aiolos showed great interest and understanding when he enquired – in the nicest possible way – about London, the Navy and how England coped after Trafalgar. Did you know he had been deeply opposed to Bonaparte?’
‘I never knew.’ Stephen sounded astonished.
Jack squinted at him, suspecting his friend of knowing more than he let on. He stayed silent though, as the past had taught him to leave some things unsaid.
‘I told him exactly how everything happened after Victory led the northern, windward column into battle, while Royal Sovereign led the second, leeward, column. He grasped the details of the fleet action at once when I made Royal Sovereign’s situation clear, after she had come under fire from Fougueux, Indomptable, San Justo and San Leandro. But I do not have to explain it to you. You remember all that perfectly, I am sure.’
Stephen only made affirmative noises. He always became hopelessly entangled in the manoeuvres at Trafalgar, no matter how often Jack explained them to him with the help of salt-shakers, bread barges, knives, forks and glasses. He hazily remembered that Victory had at one stage come close to the Bucentaure. ‘So many dead, so many wounded,’ he murmured.
Jack heard him and sighed. ‘’Tis true, Stephen, but please to remember that England had to fight at Trafalgar, otherwise Bonaparte would have held the superiority on the seas. Surely that would have been a great advantage to him, in addition to winning superiority on land.’
Stephen nodded. ‘Do not feel low, joy. We all know it was necessary and I, for one, am grateful the Corsican was defeated, the Dear be praised.’ He smiled when Jack continued with his detailed description of the battle. His thoughts wandered to the pair of red-footed falcons and the flocks of Sturnus roseus that one of Mr Aiolos’ sons had mentioned at table. It was always comforting to hear his friend’s deep voice. Such a soporific to his mind!
‘Stephen, do you attend?’
His blue eyes sparkling mischievously, Jack looked at him, and then around. When he was certain that they were not attracting attention, he kissed the back of his hand towards Stephen, who met Jack’s eyes just for an instant, before looking down. Those small gestures always made him feel loved. Their brief private moment over, the admiral continued.
‘I told Mr Aiolos that we must continue on our voyage and asked his advice about which winds in this area would best take us to our next destination. He sent for a fresh hogshead, which he said held the ways of the roaring winds. Then he bound the mouth so tightly with a silver thread that not even a breath of a side-wind could blow from any quarter. He told me that he would let the West wind alone blow, because that would be fair for us. But he said that we had to be careful, because all would be for nothing if we were lost through our own folly.
‘I had the casket delivered to the ship and stowed away,’ Jack continued, shaking his head. ‘He had been so very gracious to us, and to Surprise’s officers and men, that I did not want him to think I did not believe him. Imagine, Stephen! He behaved like the warden of all the winds, as if he could bid each of them rise or fall at his own pleasure.’
‘Did you not once mention that you can harness the wind, but are not its goddamn creator?’ Stephen still looked disapproving at the words Jack had chosen then. ‘Maybe Mr Aiolos is?’
‘Stephen, I beg you to be serious. Men cannot create the wind.’
‘From what you tell me, he never said he did, but that he was merely the guardian. That, to me, sounds reasonable.’
‘I am not a learned cove like you. Do you think he is making game of me?’ Jack sounded put upon. ‘He may have heard about our secret mission.’
‘Brother, who should have told him? I feel his actions were meant kindly, to show that he wished us all the best and always favourable winds on our journey.’
Jack nodded. ‘There is that. We can only hope that neither that mumping villain Killick nor any other old Surprise becomes too curious about the hogshead and opens it.’
‘Jack Aubrey, your soul to the devil.’ Stephen’s voice held no rancour; he objected out of habit and because his friend would expect him to be indignant. ‘Your superstition is worse than old Mrs Harris’! And just when I had something different on my mind. It has been some time since we last made music together. What say you to some toasted cheese tonight, and then our old Corelli? Or are you in the mood for something more aggressive?’
‘Cheese and Corelli? Such an excellent combination! Yes, dear, with all my heart’ Jack’s blue eyes shone more brilliantly than ever as he added, ‘Aggressive? I might be, but I will gladly follow your lead.’
They had arrived at the harbour. Jack looked this way and that, and sang out for Surprise.
His cox’n came running and he and Jack safely stowed the doctor in the blue cutter. Then Jack took his customary seat opposite Stephen.
On their run out of the harbour and towards the ship, Stephen watched a school of fish flitting past in the clear water, but after a while his gaze settled on Jack. His friend had closed his eyes against the sun, which was shining directly into his face, and now looked drowsy from the combination of sunshine, a good meal and a very agreeable conversation at table, as relaxed, in fact, as was possible for a high-ranking officer on duty.
Stephen’s thoughts wandered to another evening a week ago. Such a pleasant outcome it had had! He and Mr Aiolos had once again been discussing possible sightings of Oceanodroma leucorhoa in the Mediterranean, when a messenger arrived who needed a word with their host. The merchant had begged his guests’ indulgence and left with his man to hear the presumably confidential news.
Jack and Mrs Aiolos got along famously, because he loved her food and she loved a man with a hearty appetite, something she regarded as a compliment to her cooking. Now, out of the corner of his eye, Stephen had noticed that Jack was about to help himself with a ladle to a generous dollop from one of the smaller bowls, a dish containing a mixture of egg, olive oil, herbs and spices which added greatly to the flavour of roast meat, be it lamb or chicken, as well as varieties of fish, shrimps and crayfish. A small quantity of it went a long way, however, so he laid a hand on his friend’s sleeve.
Jack had looked at him, the filled spoon poised in the air.
‘Jack, may I suggest that you use less of that spicy cream? I know it adds the flavour of the world.’ Stephen had spoken in a whisper, but leaned closer just in case they might be overheard. Jack had inclined his head, one eyebrow on the rise and questions in his blue eyes.
‘I had it in mind that we should play a game or two of backgammon tonight. It has been a while since last we did. So, please do not smother your lamb in great quantities of Mrs Aiolos’ cream, unless you had rather sleep alone on deck tonight, my plum.’
Stephen had been certain of the internal struggle between Jack’s stomach and his still ardent temperament. After a few moments, Jack had put the ladle back into the bowl and reached for one of the still hot lamb chops on his plate. He had nibbled at it, all the while looking at his friend. Stephen had shivered, not from cold but from the heat in those blue eyes that held his gaze for an instant.
Mr Aiolos had returned and again asked forgiveness for leaving his guests alone, noting that business had a way of intruding which could sometimes not be helped. Soon they resumed their conversation, and the evening had passed pleasantly.
When admiral and doctor had retired to Surprise’s great cabin after sunrise, Stephen had rewarded Jack for having left the side dish well alone for the remainder of the meal. They had played until dawn, sometimes resting, sometimes relaxing in each other’s arms and simply taking their time to give and receive pleasure.
Now, as the blue cutter kissed the frigate’s side, the men helped Stephen onto the first step and Jack quickly ran up behind him, so that the doctor came aboard dry and only moderately winded.
Soon Surprise was speeding towards her next destination, with her sails billowed by Zéphuros.
To a man, officers and crew were intensely curious about the hogshead that they had had to stow safely on deck. Whatever could their admiral have brought with him from the island? Maybe it was a present to him; maybe it contained gold and silver. Was it not tightly bound with silver rope? Many was the time a seaman or one of the officers of the watch passed by and gave the casket a furtive kick to help guess its contents, but alas, there was not even the softest clunk, and talk of movements as if snakes were coiling themselves inside had been dismissed as blatant nonsense.
The ship’s company knew that those reptiles would never have been countenanced. Their admiral did not like wild animals in his ships, not even when their doctor, who was also an eminent natural philosopher, had brought them aboard; bees, a wombat and a vampire were amongst those he had turned his face against. One of the sailors mentioned that very early in his career there had been tales of Aubrey having jumped on a chair at the sight of a snake, nearly a dragon, a beast, deadly by any means, but the old hands shook their heads at this. Their skipper was one of the bravest and fiercest commanders in the Navy, and a capital prize taker. He might lead them into hell, but he would bring them safely out again, as their recent adventures had clearly shown. No, that rumour was dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, their curiosity about the mysterious casket remained.
Stephen was sitting on the stern bench, watching and cataloguing the wonderful variety of fish and birds that had been accompanying Surprise for nine days now. He squinted against the sun. His eyes were no longer as sharp as they used to be, but even so, yes, there was surely land on the horizon! He followed one bird’s forward flight path, his thoughts momentarily diverted by the rump of the world.
Jack was at the helm, as he had been for most of the time since they had left Mr Aiolos’ island. He had enjoyed Surprise’s steady run and taken much delight in sailing her as close to the wind as possible. The men shared his feelings, not minding his many orders to let fall or haul in so that he might get another ounce of thrust out of the dear ship. She was truly a great sailer on a bowline: weatherly, stiff and fast.
‘Much like her admiral,’ Stephen said to himself. He had heard that description of Surprise’s sailing qualities often and often. He breathed deeply. Bowling along at this fine pace was relaxing and most enjoyable.
The next day they came across a ship that turned out to be the Melpomene on her way home to England, and Jack told Stephen about her as she approached.
‘She was captured from the French by Captain Dickson in ’15. You remember Edward Dickson? He had the singular honour of striking the first and last tri-coloured flag of the Hundred Days. I don’t know who has her at present.’
Melpomene hailed Surprise, the latest news and gossip was exchanged, and letters handed over to be taken back home. Captain Waterman had regretfully to decline an invitation to dine aboard Surprise because his ship had been charged with despatches, so the ships parted just before noon.
Stephen must have become more like a seaman in all these decades with Jack, because when he made his sickbay round soon after, the tiniest superstition raised its head in his mind. Was that frigate’s name not a bad omen; was not Melpomene the muse of tragedy? Yet he ought not to dwell on it, he knew, for what could happen now that they were at peace with France and sent on a scientific mission by the Admiralty?
The afternoon would have passed as peacefully as the previous days, had not Killick and his mates continued a-contemplating the mysterious hogshead. They had tried to find out about the contents without their admiral noticing it, but their curiosity was now like a pain in their sides, and they wanted to untie the silver thread so that they could get a glimpse - no more than that.
The officer of the watch had just turned and was now walking towards the quarterdeck, and the helm was quiet. Killick crept forward with two other men. He was loosening the silver rope carefully, noting the way the knots had been tied so that he could tie the hogshead again just so, when it jerked and flew out of the men’s hands. Killick was thrown on his back, his hands and feet in the air making him look like an ill-proportioned beetle, while his mate Grimble was flung against the fluke of an anchor. The men were scrambling to their feet in horror when, in an instant, winds flew howling forth.
The Surprise nearly broached to through the force of the wind and the waves suddenly coming from the side. The masts would certainly have yielded to so strong an impression as nearly to overturn her, had Jack not ordered the men to lay aloft, to close-reef sails but for a scrap of heavy-weather canvas as soon as he raced on deck. The storm shrieked through her rigging. Jack’s voice carried over that infernal noise, urging the hands to keep the ship running before the wind.
Stephen was by now at his station in the cockpit, and while he waited and listened to the ship groaning, his thoughts returned to Melpomene. They were surely going through this storm of storms because those wicked violent daemons the Anemoi had been let loose. Could Mr Aiolos really have been the warden of the winds, or was it coincidence that the ship had been hit by so vicious a squall?
Surprise raced on and nothing could stop her. Jack prayed that no mast would be sprung and none of the canvas ripped apart. He could only hope that ship and men alike would hold out until the storms had died down.
Four men were at her helm in the hope of keeping her on course, but that hope was dashed as vicious cross-seas foamed over her sides. Jack touched one of the spokes of the wheel, feeling Surprise tremble and shudder under his hand. To him she was more like a highbred Arab chafing at the bit than a frigate some people called old. Their situation was dangerous and the outcome may well mean the loss of ship and men, but Jack’s awareness had never been more intense, he had never felt more exhilarated and alive as when Surprise plunged deep, her larboard rail nearly touching the dark water that swirled about her. Each time she rose again to meet those huge waves, Jack’s heart filled with pride. She could still outsail a first-rate; no other ship could hold a candle to her.
Gigantic waves came and came, never giving a moment’s respite. They swept across Surprise, sometimes from the back, sometimes from the front. Nobody could say for certain from which direction the ship would be flooded next.
The frigate was swept up and sucked into dark sea walls, vast and overwhelming. Surely it was Poseidon whose voice then roared in Jack’s ears: ‘The harpies will chase you ’round the Antares Maelstrom and ’round Tartarus’ flames and Aeacus will curse you before I give you up!’
All of a sudden, everything was silent, the seas were calm again, and the ship was bobbing on gentle white-crested waves. Dazed, Jack looked around at his equally dazed men and at his dear Surprise. Unbelievable as it was, they all seemed to have come through the storm not much the worse for wear. It was almost as if some power was looking out for them and ensuring their safety, in spite of Poseidon's wrath.
Meanwhile Melpomene under Captain Waterman had steadily made her way towards England. Every now and then her lookout had turned to watch Surprise slowly getting smaller and smaller.
She had nearly disappeared over the horizon when all of a sudden black clouds gathered over and around her. Melpomene’s lookout sang out an alert at once and he, her captain, her officers and most of her crew had to watch in horror as lightning bolts struck near the helpless frigate, as the waves tossed her about, as the seas boiled around her like the contents of a hot cauldron. Shakespeare’s witches come again.
Not an hour later the waters were quiet once more, and the sun shone from a clear blue sky as if nothing had happened. Melpomene’s captain gave orders to turn around. Maybe there were survivors? But when they arrived at the scene of former horror – the sun was about to set – nothing was there, apart from pieces from a broken and shredded mast, parts of a torn sail and an empty hogshead. During the night, flares were sent up to light the area, and the next morning found them still sweeping the seas, but to no avail. There were no survivors, nor even corpses, and Captain Waterman had the search abandoned.
Waterman, deep in thought, stood at Melpomene’s stern windows. He had begun his naval career as a fourteen-year-old midshipman in Hyaena in ’01, and still remembered how everybody had cheered and spoken with the highest admiration of the gallant action of Sophie under her Master and Commander against the much larger Spanish xebec Cacafuego. Since then he had followed Aubrey’s career closely and many were the times when he had asked himself how the former captain, now Admiral, would have handled this or that action against the enemy. Aubrey had already become a legend in his lifetime, and Waterman had been deeply impressed by the admiral’s wholly unassuming countenance and benevolence towards him and his officers.
He resolved that once he had returned to England he would pass by the Aubreys’ estate in Dorset to offer his condolences to Mrs Aubrey and also his general help in this melancholy situation. It was all he could do for the family of a fellow officer, and he knew that his Margaret would understand.
It was with a heavy heart that he sat down to write his report to the Lords Commissioners at the Admiralty in London; that Surprise had sunk in extraordinary, never before witnessed, weather conditions, taking her admiral, her officers and all her ship’s company with her to their watery graves in the Mediterranean.
Chapter 4: The Cyclops
With a bitter wistfulness Admiral Aubrey watched Captain Harding piped aboard HMS Suffolk with full ceremony. Harding may have been sad to leave his admiral and mentor, yet he was still in command of the 74. Jack continued to watch from the deck of his dear Surprise; beloved, yes, but private, and a mere 28-gun frigate, nothing to compare to the glory of a Royal Navy line-of-battle ship.
At breakfast earlier that morning
“They say our mission is complete, Stephen! 'Your efficacy in ridding the Eastern Mediterranean of the scourge of piracy is duly noted. Our confidence in the success of your endeavours, based upon your similar achievements in South Africa, has been upheld to the utmost.' And so on and so forth. Why, there are still reports of piracy from Cyprus to Sicily! How they expected me to control, let alone exterminate, piracy in these waters whilst they removed my squadron one by one – Hell and death, with one seventy-four and a frigate I could not hamper piracy in the Levantine, let alone police half the entire Sea!” Jack paused for breath, and perhaps to receive an acknowledgement from Stephen, whose gaze had taken on an indistinct, faraway aspect that had become all too familiar in the past months.
In the silence the doctor's gaze returned to the admiral. “Certainly, as you say, my dear. Yet the Admiralty does seem effusive in its praise of your accomplishments.”
“Bah! A parcel of old men stuck behind their desks in England. What do they know of piracy? They want to justify dismantling my com— the squadron, and they've done it by inventing a victory.”
“Is it entirely invented, joy? Perhaps we have had one or two battles that have escaped my notice, but it seems to me we have been engaged in far fewer lately than upon our arrival in these waters.”
“Of course there have been fewer battles! They can see us coming miles away, in this giant slow unwieldy hulk!”
Stephen blinked. Jack may never have become as fond of the Suffolk as of many of his other commands, but he'd never referred to his own vessel in such vehement derogatory language before.
“The Surprise would be much more suited than the Suffolk to fighting pirates – she's powerful enough to take on any independent illegal vessel operating these waters, even if she can no longer hold her own against a modern navy's frigates of 38 or 44 guns. But the geniuses at the Admiralty allowed her status as a hired vessel to lapse, and I'm unsure where I'd stand, ordering her to fight pirates. It's as knotty a tangle as that scrub Dutourd put himself in, even if she were to take on only out-and-out pirates. Too easy to run and hide behind some technical legality in the shifting politics here.” Jack had never been as successful in navigating the complexities on land as at sea, and unravelling the ever shifting ties and strands of beys, caliphs, principalities, and Sultans was well beyond his powers. He had wisely learned from his experience, and left the understanding to his surgeon, particular friend, and political adviser, Dr. Stephen Maturin. “I would never wish Mowett to undergo such risks. And without her being even a hired vessel, I couldn't move my flag onto her.”
His flag. He looked back to Stephen's face, assuming a cheer as false as his friend's attentiveness. “We are to move back onto Surprise, bless her. I am sorry for it, Stephen, there will be less space for your collections. As suitable as she may be for chases, she ain't as roomy as the Suffolk.”
“Never distress yourself, my dear. It is time to send my collections home in any case. Perhaps they may be left in the Suffolk – struck into her hold – for her journey home. Is she to return home?”
“Yes, Captain Harding will take her.” Jack paused, then continued, “Perhaps, Stephen, perhaps those old men at the Admiralty have been reading my reports a little too literally. You know, it ain't wise to be perfectly honest about absolutely everything. Without actually telling any falsehoods, mind. But leaving out incidents that are neither here nor there don't make any difference to the truth, and keeps you from looking a complete fool.”
Stephen, who had since his first voyage with Captain Aubrey had had the dubious pleasure of reading and assisting in the composition of any official report Jack was required to make, knew exactly what the admiral was referring to – incidents that went down in the ship's log as simply 'sighted such-and-such a vessel', but which every man aboard knew was a pirate, one they may have been searching for, but which had regardless the edge in running from them, so that they frequently declined even the attempt to give chase. Any pirate caught was, of course, taken, sunk, or destroyed, as per the admiral's standing orders, the size of His Majesty's Ship making any other outcome nigh impossible. Naturally Jack kept the failures to himself, and reported only the successes.
“I suppose I may have given them reason to believe piracy on the wane,” he said.
Stephen reflected that the rate of piracy should be determined more by the number of reports from merchants victimized than by successful pursuits, but kept this observation to himself, the Admiralty not being known for its understanding of rational argument.
“But d'ye see, Stephen,” continued Jack, “Every time I sent in a report, I included corrections of the locations of numerous islands and landmarks. I am continually amazed – astonished and amazed! – at how many are recorded incorrectly in even the most recent charts. And these ain't shorelines, or depths in the bays, which you expect to change over time. Whole islands! They don't just float away, you know, pick up and move over a league or two to get a new view.”
“There is Tir na n-Og, whose location has shifted over the centuries.”
“Tir na n-Og? Is that not the island you wrote your beautiful lament for? A lament because it has vanished?'
“Well, that is true. All are agreed that where ever Tir na n-Og moved about, it is no longer accessible to mortal navigators.”
“These islands on the Admiralty's charts haven't vanished, and they are perfectly accessible to mortal navigators. Modern competent navigators, at any rate. And besides,” Jack started and then hesitated. He'd intended to remind Stephen that they were in the well-travelled, civilised Mediterranean, very far from the wilds of the North Atlantic west of Ireland, but reconsidered, because if Stephen hadn't grasped this basic piece of geography yet, he was not likely to now; and also because he hated being corrected. Jack chalked it up to another instance of Stephen's lubberliness. How he could be so well-oriented on land, knowing this pass versus that, this desert or the other, one mountain from another, but couldn't tell the difference between a jagged bit of inland sea with minimal waves and not much in the way of tides, and an entire ocean, taking up a sizeable portion of the surface of Earth, with gigantic rollers that could sink even a ship-of-the-line in a moment upon one error – well, the workings of Stephen's mind had long ago passed Jack's understanding.
“Besides?” prompted Stephen. From the look on Jack's face, he suspected his friend had been 'brought by the lee' once more (no doubt due to some thoughtless derogatory nonsensical remark concerning Irish navigators, who naturally were among the finest in the world, living as they did among the Isles, but who had not become world-renowned explorers for the simple reason that they already inhabited one of the loveliest places on Earth). A more delicate gentleman might have allowed the hastily reconsidered slip to slide, but a more delicate gentleman would not have survived Jack's friendship all these years, filled as it was with tactless slurs on his nationality and religion, constant nautical jargon of the most abstruse kind, and worst of all, unceasing efforts in the creation of the most execrable puns. A friend of taste, refinement, and delicacy would certainly have allowed Jack's lapse to remain overlooked, but Stephen enjoyed watching his friend's attempts at recovery, and his wriggling on the hook of apology.
Stephen's hopes were disappointed this time, though, as Jack seamlessly recovered his train of thought. “Besides, whatever may happen in the Atlantic, what I mean to say is the Admiralty have apparently heard my lamentations on the state of hydrography here in the Eastern Med, and have authorised me to sail about in Surprise to provide updates.”
Jack tried to revive his spirits a bit by reflecting that his orders were purposely vague about the specifics of the updates, leaving it to his experienced judgement and discretion where he choose to make his investigations. However, it was hard to get around the fact that becoming a mere hydrographer was a major step down from having an entire squadron at his command.
This thought continued to oppress Jack’s mind as he watched his flag being taken down from the foremast of the Suffolk, not to be raised on the Surprise, naturally. As a private vessel, Surprise would not even fly the ensign.
Jack turned his mind from these lowering thoughts to the advantages of his current occupation, helpfully raised by Stephen in their conversation earlier. Jack always enjoyed the opportunity for hydrography – a favourite pursuit of his from his earliest days as a mid. Stephen himself was very excited; there were likely to be many opportunities for naturalising in the bays and on the islands – the less visited islands, even – whilst Jack and his officers undertook the time-consuming process of pin-pointing landmarks and perhaps even charting depths. Very agreeable work, certainly, but unfortunately considered more as drudgery than as a task of the vital importance it was, and therefore lacking in prestige. Not, Jack insisted to himself, that he was concerned with high status. The rank of admiral was all he'd longed for, and he had it. It was simply pleasant to be acknowledged for one's contributions. Additionally, there were rarely any opportunities to go into battle during hydrographic missions.
Stephen's own spirits were also somewhat depressed, despite the anticipation of longer visits to remote locations than he'd yet experienced in his naval career – visits unlikely to be constantly interrupted and rushed with the omnipresent motto “Not a minute to lose!” Stephen took great pleasure and pride in his status as a natural philosopher of renown, but for much of his career had also enjoyed a much quieter, much less public, status as an actor in war against Napoleon in the realm of intelligence. His most trusted cohort in these adventures, a man he'd come to regard as a close friend, was Sir Joseph Blaine. However, Sir Joseph had recently seemed much cooler and more distant, ever since the events in South Africa. Stephen had naturally used his intelligence skills to collect information about the pirates in the area, and that naturally brought him into contact with all sorts of unsavoury characters and other anti-British anti-authority types, such as those agitating for African independence from Britain. Stephen was of course not much in favour of Empire under any flag, but had no particular interest in advancing the cause of the Boers, and to be now distrusted (well, perhaps “distrusted” was too strong a word for the vague feeling of removal from the intimacy, the perfect understanding and even openness – within bounds, clearly understood bounds – that they had shared) by his old friend and comrade-in-intelligence-arms was surprisingly painful. However, Stephen reflected, he should have anticipated the change in their relationship. With the achievement of peace, a very welcome peace, came an end to the threat of Napoleon's tyranny; Sir Joseph's primary agenda now was the continued advancement of British power globally, the consolidation and expansion their colonies; with which agenda Stephen had no sympathy whatever.
Jack, bless him, remained entirely trusting of Stephen, setting him down and picking him up as requested, without question, unhesitating and unsuspicious of any motive not in strict accordance with Jack's own. Despite the lack of complete alignment between Stephen's interests and the British Royal Navy's, Stephen chose to remain with Admiral Aubrey rather than pursue any of his own interests such as Catalan or Irish independence, partly in recognition of how painful a split with his particular friend might be, and how pursuing those political activities could easily land him on the opposing side to Jack's orders. In the current situation, the decision had required very little sacrifice. After years of alternating between the chilly North Atlantic and the even more frigid Great Southern Ocean, with weeks of wallowing in the oppression of the doldrums between the two, a series of cruises in the delightfully warm and practically home-waters of the Mediterranean was especially inviting, not to mention the occasional opportunity of wandering ancient lands and even naturalising among antiquity; and all whilst continuing to sail with his old friend Jack, enjoying toasted cheese for supper and duets in the evening.
Admiral Aubrey looked between the two sets of papers, astonished, dismayed, and outraged.
“How can they give me orders at the same time they claim I'm 'missing, presumed dead'? This is absurd!”
Well, to be fair, he thought, they – the Admiralty – hadn't give the orders and declared him dead at the same time. The orders had been sent out months earlier, according to the dates on them. He had simply received them at the same time, because of the vagaries of the post at sea, particularly in peacetime. Jack had thought the despatches chancy during war, but those now seemed downright regular compared to the complete lack of urgency, or even complete lack of despatch-vessels, during peace.
Still, that left Jack in the unenviable position of wondering what precisely he ought to do. Should he head home as quickly as possible, to re-establish his existence? Or continue his hydrography, trusting that one of the several reports he had sent would soon arrive at Whitehall? Or carry out this new mission, even though his current official status did not precisely provide the proper authority?
Jack sighed. Life as a naval captain, isolated, often for months, and the sole mortal authority on board ship, frequently required difficult decisions – life or death, success or failure, career promoting or ending decisions – but he rarely found himself in such a challenging position as this. Usually he had a single set of orders, worded vaguely enough to hang him if circumstances turned unfortunate, of course; but at least the intent was clear. Any decision he'd ever made (precious few they'd been, too, fortunately) to save the ship at the expense of completing a mission could be easily defended. Here, however, the ship herself was not in danger, which he supposed he should count as a blessing, although those cases where the proper actions to take were obvious, instinctive even, did bring a certain clarity with them.
His revolving thoughts kept returning to Stephen, sitting there at the other end of the cabin, absorbed in his own letters and journals. Perhaps this was a time to consult with his political advisor; if ever there was a political muddle, this was one. In the end, though, it would be the Admiral's decision alone, and his responsibility, and whilst Stephen could sort out caliphs, beys, and pashas as easy as kiss my hand, he'd left the untangling of the knotty threads of naval hierarchy to Jack.
In truth, Jack was more than capable of sorting out this conundrum, and he had already made his decision – made it instinctively, and was now in the process of rationalising it to himself, whilst avoiding thinking about the other news Admiral Goole had brought, along with the latest Naval Chronicle and his out-dated orders.
“By God, it is the Surprise,” Goole had exclaimed as he climbed the side and shook Jack's hand warmly. “By God, Aubrey, I don't know how you do it. Everyone thinks this is it, you're finally finished, and up you pop again like a damned Jack-in-the-box! Or a Jack-in-the-boat, in this case, ha ha!” Goole laughed at his own witticism.
“Very happy to see you, too, Goole,” replied Jack. “But why shouldn't this be the Surprise?”
“Well, that's what my captain said, swore up and down it was her, when we first spotted you. He was a mid in her, he said, would recognise her anywhere. Had to say I was tempted to agree – why, anyone would recognise her, no one else does a mainmast like that.
“But no, I said, Captain Waterman told us all the Surprise was lost months ago – freak storm right after parting. Spent a night and a day looking for survivors – Melpomene's log bore him out – nothing but bits of the mainmast. You're officially dead and drowned, Aubrey, ha ha! Says so, right in these papers!”
Jack took the papers and other mail – quite a light postbag, as little was directed to a ship thought lost – in something of a daze. He was agog to read them directly, but he had his duty to do by the Admiral first.
Goole's mirth continued as they drank coffee in the great cabin, relaying the latest news and gossip, oblivious to Jack's anxious unrest, caught up as he was in his pleasure in discovering a lost ship whole and healthy – balm to any sailor's heart – and in his delight at Jack's plight, that amusement with which anyone witnesses another's absurd and inconvenient position, as long as it does not affect oneself.
Out of touch for so long, Jack would normally have listened with great interest to Goole's voluble relaying of the latest scuttlebutt. Today, however, his impatience claimed all his attention, until he heard Woolcombe mentioned.
“It seems your front lawn is entirely taken up with a rabble of parsons, all camped out there, a veritable settlement,” Goole remarked, chuckling anew at the thought of Aubrey soon being legally cuckolded.
“I'm sorry – come again?” asked Jack. “Why are parsons settling on my lawn?”
“Well, there's too many to house inside, ain't there?” laughed Goole. “Once you was declared dead, seems every Father and his brother (ha ha!) was anxious to pay suit to the lovely Mrs Aubrey.”
Jack shook his head, still unable to comprehend these revelations.
“She's a rich widow, you know, Aubrey,” confided Goole. “And charming, beautiful, well-conducted. Why, if I wasn't on my way to the eastern Med-- but then I'm a married man, myself, already.
“Loyal, too,” he added, “She is keeping 'em out on the lawn! Damn good thing you are wealthy, Aubrey, they'll be eating every bit of cattle and game on your estate, I should think.” Goole finished his cup and then rose to take his leave. “You're a lucky man, Aubrey – Lucky Jack indeed! Beat back Death himself – got a lovely loyal wife waiting for you at home. May your luck never end, Aubrey!” For once Goole's cheerful mood defeated his splenetic envy of his former shipmate's good fortune.
So caught up in the whirl of emotion and conflicting concerns was Jack, that it never even occurred to him when he relayed the conversation to Stephen, having confirmed in his papers the truth of Goole’s words, to make the obvious play on words that Goole's surprise on seeing the Surprise demanded. The Chronicle not only listed him (and Stephen, and Mowett, and all the other officers and crew) among the “missing, presumed dead”, but even included a hint about the Widow Aubrey likely to be re-married soon, pressed as she was by courtship from all sides.
“None of my reports have reached the Admiralty, Stephen. Not one! None of our letters, nothing.”
The storms had indeed been severe – unusually severe, and the winds had been coming from the wrong directions. Unable to reach the more frequented ports, Jack had done his best with the isolated areas he'd come across. His hydrography work, taking him to the more deserted rocks and islands, did not help matters. Jack relished the challenge of navigating in the tricky winds and storms, and as long as he could carry out his mission it hadn't occurred to him that the freakish weather was likely hampering communications throughout the Mediterranean.
His next step was clear, legalities be damned. He needed to return to England and re-establish his and his crew's existence. Fortunately, this port with the piracy problem mentioned in his new orders was on their way home. In his current mood, he was happy to have an excuse to blast away at someone. It should be easy enough to disguise Surprise as a merchant – she'd successfully worn many another disguise – and once he was attacked by a pirate he required no official standing in anyone's navy to return fire.
This pondering was all to keep his mind off the visions of a mourning Sophie wooed by one eligible parson after another. Why parsons, he hadn't the spirit to wonder. Why not? Everyone knew that parsons were bad luck aboard ship; just now it seemed his life had been plagued by parsons. “Lucky Jack”, Goole had said, as if it was true. Goole, on his way to take command of the newly-reconstituted squadron in the eastern Med – the squadron that had been Jack's, who was now reduced to nothing but a private vessel. Goole, who wasn't on the brink of losing his wife and fortune to a parcel of parsons.
The striking of the bells and the changing of the watch shook Jack out of his gloomy maunderings. He was lucky, dammit; he was alive, he and his crew and ship whole and sound and healthy. He had a ship, and a mission in which he had high hopes of a battle at last; and at home – a home he was determined to reach, regardless of wind and tide – he had, still loyal to him, his own Sophie. And if she had married again, why, with his existence re-established, that new marriage would be annulled, and his sweetheart would be his once again.
The gleam newly alight in his eye, he ran up on deck to give the orders to proceed to Messina, Sicily.
The doctor entered the cabin just as the Admiral and his first were completing their plans to turn Surprise into an ordinary Mediterranean trader.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, and began to back out again.
Pullings smiled and gestured for him to remain, whilst Jack spoke up, “There you are, Stephen! Tom and I are just finishing – I've nearly made him late for the wardroom dinner.”
“Not at all, sir,” said Pullings, still smiling, as he excused himself.
Stephen contemplated his friend, who seemed much happier than he had in days.
“You are cheerful today, I find, brother.”
“Ha ha, yes, I was in a bit of a gloom this past week, wasn't I? But it is as Goole said, finding that you ain't dead after all may just cheer you up. To tell you the truth, brother, I have been oppressed by this news of our demise; been afraid of what we may find when we return, but now I find that with the prospect of an engagement before us – well, the future will take care of itself, eh? Whether we fret or no. And today not even the thought of the dreadful, filthy, unseamanlike shape we are to inflict on poor Surprise will dampen my spirits!”
“You have found your sailor's sanguine soul, then. All for the best, I am sure.” Stephen paused a moment, then continued, “May I confess a strange dread that has been growing upon me as we approach Sicily?”
“Why yes, please do,” replied Jack, looking with concern at the doctor, blue eyes intent.
“No doubt I am being absurd; certainly no one else seems to have taken any note of this terrible danger that I fear; but I find I cannot ease my own mind. Tell me, Jack, does not our course take us directly between the twin horrors of Skylla and Charybdis?”
Jack leant back, relieved. “Yes, it does, and I understand your concern perfectly, brother; and am happy to ease your mind directly. You see, during the war the one thing Napoleon did accomplish that benefitted all of us, reluctant as I may be to admit it, was rid us entirely of that scourge Skylla and reduce that cursed Charybdis to a mere nuisance, no more.”
“I am astonished! Entirely astonished! How did he perform this miracle, and how did I come not to have heard of it? All my sea-going life I have been taught to tremble in terror at their names, as every generation of seafarers has before us, and now you tell me they are no more? I am amazed, utterly amazed!”
“Well, 'tis true we often use their names whenever we speak of any difficult sea-passage, and likely will continue to do so; but as it so happened, we was on the far side of the world when the deed was done, and learnt of it only much later. It was of the greatest importance in this part of the sea, of course, but at that time the English authorities were none too anxious to promote any good deed of Bonaparte's, so naturally by the time we returned home it wasn't much mentioned among our acquaintance.
“As to the how – well, that is another reason we should not sing the unlamented Emperor's praises too high: he sacrificed six ships – six, Stephen – one for each of the creature's heads. Rigged them to blow sky-high as the monster tried to consume them.”
“May the Gods love us,” murmured Stephen. “Was there great loss of life?”
“As to that, I am not sure; few details are known, even now. I would expect the ships were minimally manned, possibly even with volunteers – Gods know enough seamen would happily have given their lives to see the end of that horrible creature, so many unwilling lives had she taken. But still, Stephen, it took a bloody-minded man to push through that scheme. Six whole ships!”
“A terrible tragedy, indeed. And did the explosion – explosions, I should say, six of them – did they account for the rout of Charybdis, as well?”
“No, as Charybdis is more in the nature of a whirlpool – a maelstrom of waves on the rocks in the Straits – she wasn't affected by the bomb-vessels. Indeed, the passage through is still somewhat tricky, but with Skylla gone it is at least manageable. Napoleon’s solution for Charybdis was to install a series of navigational markers – a task made possible with the twin evil gone – including a wonderful new lighthouse. Now whether night or day, in fog and sun, it is possible for any sailor of reasonable skill to manoeuvre through the Straits. And that, my dear Stephen, is why you need have no fear for your skin, nor any of ours,” finished Jack with a broad smile.
The Admiral and the doctor were both on the quarterdeck as Surprise made her careful way through the Straits. With his fear of those waters allayed by the complete trust he had in Jack’s seamanship, Stephen was free to admire the crashing waves thrown up by Charybdis, their tips catching the last of the sun's rays and throwing out brilliant flashes of light in the growing dark.
“D'ye see, Stephen? Ain't it marvellous?” Jack exclaimed.
“Sure it is the beauty of the sea.”
“And now that I see it for myself, I am more certain than ever that the lens is one of M Fresnel's. Quite the engineer, and very knowledgeable about optics. Did you have the opportunity to meet him, Stephen, when you was in France to speak to the Institut?”
Stephen had just time to grasp that Jack was referring to the lighthouse that stood solid and proud above the roaring surf. Its light did indeed shine forth brilliantly; much more brilliantly, indeed, than he'd ever seen from any of its kind before. “No, sadly, I did not have that pleasure,” he said.
“Ah, well, with the war over now, perhaps we will see him in London at the Royal Society.”
The Admiral walked over to his lieutenants, who were gathered on the other side of the quarterdeck, watching the waters in wary silence. The reports of terrible piracy – the burning of vessels, those that didn't pay their extortion – had come from around this area, and the crew stood ready for battle, whilst pretending that the ship was but an unwary merchant. It was a delicate moment.
Dusky-armed Hespera cast twilit shadows over the port as the Surprise opened the bay. All was calm, peaceful even, once past the awful noise of Charybdis. There were no signs of piratical activities or intent; just a quiet trading and fishing village.
“Well, that was damned anti-climatic,” said Jack, back in the cabin with Stephen after mooring the ship without incident. “I thought we made a tempting target. No doubt we caught them on their day off, however.”
“No doubt,” agreed Stephen absently. He was contemplating on the possible finds among the flora and fauna of the large rocks and islands around Charybdis and the former Skylla. Very likely they had been little explored before the twin threats had been removed. “Shall we be here for some days, then, in the hope that the pirates will assert themselves?”
“Oh yes, certainly. We may as well water and victual as well, take on some civilised fare.”
Stephen heartily agreed. The quantity of the food aboard had not been a concern, but finer culinary pleasures such as palatable wine had been sorely lacking.
“I tell you what, Stephen, let's go ashore now. We can find a likely-looking taverna and talk up the locals, maybe learn something about these supposed pirates. And perhaps drink something besides watered-down vinegar.”
By the time they were settled in the town's chief taverna, much of Jack's cheerful mood had dissipated. Never having thought of himself as particularly bloody-minded, he hadn't realised just how much he'd been looking forward to a fight, to work off the frustration from (and distract himself from) the more challenging circumstances of his life: his family and friends back home, thinking him dead, and mourning him; Sophie surrounded by suitors, perhaps even falling in love with one – no, perish that thought. It was unbearable to suppose she might be not overjoyed but dismayed to see him alive. Yet to turn his thoughts to his career was hardly better. His own squadron dismantled, himself an Admiral in name only, not even in a Royal Navy ship but a private vessel. And worse – forced to witness Goole taking command of a newly-constituted squadron.
Jack sat silently, downing glass after glass of the popular taverna’s excellent vino and listening to the talk of the many other patrons. He heard a surprising amount of English, and had picked up enough of the lingua franca of the ports in this part of the world during his various missions in the Mediterranean to understand much of the rest. There was indeed talk of pirates, although naturally they were not referred to as such, not when there were likely several of them drinking alongside the speakers. Clearly, it was not a popular gang with the more honest locals, stealing sheep, discouraging trade. Jack determined to stay as long as was necessary to do something about them.
“Ha! A stranger!” A giant of a man with a booming voice sat down at Jack's solitary table (Stephen having long ago wandered off, as he was wont to do for a variety of reasons Jack had long ago learnt better than to inquire about). The man offered an enormous hand over the table, giving Jack a momentary vision of what it may have been like for petite women whose hands he'd taken to see them swallowed up in another's. “My name is Polyphemus. It is my pleasure to make the acquaintance of any newcomer to our humble village.”
“How do you do,” said Jack politely. Despite the volume of the man's voice, they seemed to be attracting no attention from the other patrons.
“Ah, you wonder how I know to speak English to you? You have been quiet, discreet, you think, yes?” Polyphemus laughed. “Ah, but I can recognise an English sailor! The yellow hair, the ruddy cheeks, the blue eyes! You are the perfect Englishman!”
Jack could not think how to respond to this, and wished Stephen were still there.
“Now you wonder, how does Polyphemus come to speak English himself? I am a man of many words! Ah ha ha ha ha ha!” Polyphemus laughed loudly as if he had made a remark of the greatest wit.
Jack smiled politely but still remained silent.
“Now, stranger, you have not been here before, yes? Of course, you do not need to answer, I know. Polyphemus knows everyone here! You come to trade here – nice big ship, full of goods, yes? Or maybe you buy our goods to sell elsewhere, very good. You can come here now because no war, but also because no more trouble sailing, yes? No more of the evil monsters! One blown up, the other – vanquished by Cyclops!”
“By Cyclops?” Jack asked, surprised out of his silence.
“Yes, the one-eyed giant! One eye that looks out all night – and all day – looks out above the monster, keeps all safe from her, from her treachery, her wiles, her evil destructive ways. Cyclops is the saviour of this land!” This last was said in a hieratic voice aimed at all the taverna; successfully, if the sudden quiet was an indication. Polyphemus turned back to Jack with a brilliant smile and the patrons resumed their conversations.
“The lighthouse—” Jack started.
“Cyclops, then, as you say – it is indeed marvellous,” said Jack. “I was admiring it myself as we sailed past it this evening.”
Polyphemus gave a sly smile. “The evening is not the best time to admire Cyclops. You must see him in the day! Tomorrow – you see Cyclops and you will understand. Cyclops keeps us all safe, makes us all wealthy, and his keep must be paid, yes! Now, friend, I have told you my name, and told you Cyclops', now you tell me your name.”
Jack was still puzzling out how a lighthouse could be more impressive in the daytime and was taken by surprise at Polyphemus' demand. He hadn't thought far enough ahead to concoct an alias, but in a town full of English-speaking sailors, in a world full of former Navy men now cast ashore, his own name might just be a little too well-known. Lucky Jack Aubrey had made his first fame and fortune in these very waters. He thought about how he was legally deceased, an admiral with no ship and no rank, either, right then, and pretending to be merely a merchant. “My name? I’m – I'm nobody. Nobody important,” he muttered, voice trailing away. Why wasn't Stephen here? This sort of thing was his bailiwick, not Jack's.
“Sorry? I did not catch what you said. Friend, your name!”
“No one! I'm no one!” Jack nearly shouted his response at this ridiculous creature with his ridiculous manners.
“Noah Juan? Noah Juan – excellent name! Noah of the ark – we have sheep here, lovely goats – you will like!”
As Polyphemus stood up, swaying but still smiling, Jack realised that he too must have been drinking. The huge man walked off as abruptly as he had arrived.
Jack continued at his table a while longer, drinking – although a little more slowly – and thinking over the most damned odd encounter he'd had in his life. Not long after, Stephen came and reclaimed his seat.
“Stephen! There you are! I've had the most damned odd encounter—”
“Yes, brother, and I pray you will tell me all about it, but first shall we retire to the ship? I too have news of import.”
Back in the cabin, Stephen told the admiral about a terrible monster that had, it appeared, taken the place of the destroyed water-creature. “I believe it may be this monster that is the source of the 'piracy', and not a group of ordinary humans. They call this creature 'Cyclops'.”
Jack's look of concern vanished with a smile as he replied, “Oh! You've been misled, I believe. Cyclops is just what they call the lighthouse we saw. It's not a monster! It's their – ” He almost said 'saviour', but an unsavoury echo of Polyphemus' words stopped him. “It's sort of a hero to them – its having subdued Charybdis, you know, and allowed trading vessels to reach port here more safely.”
Stephen looked sceptical, but nodded. “You would not object if we should take a closer look at 'Cyclops'? I believe you expressed significant interest in it yourself.”
“No objection at all. I should like that above all things.”
Bearing in mind the giant's exhortation that the lighthouse was even more remarkable in daylight (not to mention catering to the doctor's usual leisurely morning routine), it was well into mid-morning when Jack and Stephen set out in the jolly-boat. They approached the lighthouse from the quieter waters on the bay side, naturally. Nothing much larger than the skiff could thread through the rocks, and Jack's arms received an unaccustomed degree of exercise that morning, unaccustomed even considering the frequency with which he'd been out in the little boat hydrographing and taking Stephen naturalising.
They had yet to reach the island with the lighthouse itself when Jack, pausing in his exertions, noticed a small vessel making its careful way through the Straits. He rested on his oars, watching with his natural sailor's curiosity to see how well the vessel coped with the rough waters. It was managing quite well when an odd movement at the top of the lighthouse caught his attention.
“Jack, look!” cried an equally astonished Stephen, pointing.
Jack nodded, face grim. The head of 'Cyclops' was opening, and Jack could see the large lens inside (a Fresnel lens, definitely), but it was oddly inverted. Men were visible, too, working some sort of pulley system to aim it – and aiming it at the vessel now in the midst of the Straits.
“What on Earth can they possibly be doing?” wondered Jack, just as his question was answered. A small thread of smoke appeared in the side of the vessel.
“Oh... my... Gods...” said Jack in horror.
“What is it? What – how are they doing that?” Stephen asked, equally alarmed and horrified.
“They're using – they are perverting the use of that lens! I know Fresnel never intended such a thing!”
The vessel sailed on, the crew valiantly trying to extinguish the fire, but Cyclops' baleful eye followed it, starting another fire, this one in the rigging.
“They're using the lens to concentrate the rays of the sun – to focus them on the xebec, there. They're going to burn it! Stephen!” Jack cried out in anguish, in part at his fury at the events, and in part at his complete inability to do anything at all about it. He hoped the xebec could sail away in time, put out the fires; he hoped the men aboard would get away safely in their boats; he hoped Zeus would send a lightning bolt immediately to destroy this abomination they called Cyclops.
On the long row back to the ship, Jack and Stephen came up with a plan: that evening, they and some of the Surprises would try to get as many of the pirate gang drunk as possible. Stephen would work at identifying the gang members and distinguishing them from honest locals. Then, in the night, a group of Surprises led by Stephen would free the sheep that the pirate gang had stolen from the locals. While the gang was chasing after them, a second group of skilled Surprises, led by Jack, would remove the lens and bring it to the ship.
The plan worked. Polyphemus remained at the lighthouse, but he was drunk, and he and his few men could not stop the fierce and determined Surprises.
Polyphemus called out in his large booming voice, “Noah Juan is killing Cyclops! Noah Juan is killing us!”
But the rest of the pirates, used to Polyphemus' drunken ravings, naturally ignored his lunatic cries of “No one is killing us!”
“Of course not,” they cried. “Now go to sleep!”
And Jack and Stephen sailed off into the rosy arms of Dawn, taking the precious Fresnel lens with them.
Chapter 5: Circe
Jack was relaxing on the beach, nearly asleep, while Stephen waded in the shallows examining shells, when their peace was shattered by a cry of “Admiral Aubrey!” Jack sat up and squinted against the bright sunlight.
It was Pullings. Jack had sent him off with a score of men to investigate a wisp of smoke he’d sighted in the island’s distance. He was coming back alone, and in a tearing hurry. Jack was on his feet in a flash and moving to meet him. “What’s amiss, Tom?”
Pullings bent from the waist and panted for a few seconds.
“Where are the men?”
“She… Lord, sir… she’s… they’re swine!”
“Oh, well, really, Tom. I say. I know some of the men are a bit crude around the edges….”
“I think he means it literally, Jack.” Stephen plopped onto the ground between them and started brushing sand off his feet with a towel. He peered up at Jack’s puzzled face. “That is to say, swine in fact. With snouts, and grunting.”
“Yes!” Pullings said, having regained his breath at last. “She had a wand….”
“Who is this she?”
“Start from the beginning,” Stephen urged, beginning to put on his stockings.
“She called herself Circe, and she invited us to come into her home to partake of wine and cheese.”
“Toasted?” Jack asked with interest.
Pullings blinked. “I don’t believe so, sir.”
“Ah.” Jack looked disappointed but waved a hand for Tom to continue.
“I didn’t like the cut of her jib, so I stayed outside and peered in through a window. As I said, she gave them this cheese, and after they’d eaten it up she started to go about hitting them with this wand of hers.”
“And they turned into swine?” Stephen extended his hands to be pulled up.
“Proper swine,” Pullings said gloomily, while Jack brushed Stephen down. “She put them into a sty. I ran to tell you.”
“Just so,” Jack replied with dangerous calm. “Killick! Killick, there!”
“Which I can hear you, can’t I? Sir.”
“Bring me my sword. You and I will soon have this all put straight, Tom, never you fret.”
Pullings, who had been red from exertion, turned pale. “I can’t go back there, sir! She’s a witch!”
“I’ve never known you shy, Tom,” Jack said in disbelief.
“I’ll go, of course, if you order it.” Pullings’s voice trembled.
Stephen gave Jack a nudge and shook his head slightly.
Jack frowned at him, and then tried not to frown at Tom. “You’d better stay here in charge of the rest of the crew, then.”
“Oh, thank you. I mean, aye, sir.”
Killick brought Jack’s sword and fastened it around him. “Thankee, Killick. Tom, Stephen, I don’t know how long I’ll be….”
“I am going with you,” Stephen announced. He gave a nod to Killick, who unearthed a pistol from somewhere about his person and handed it over, butt first.
Jack blinked. “So you are, it would appear. Come on then. There’s not a moment to lose!”
Twenty minutes later Jack was repeating those words. “Doctor, there’s not a moment to lose, especially in picking flowers!”
“It’s an herb, Jack. A very valuable herb.” Stephen tucked it carefully into his coat.
“I daresay. Are you ever coming?”
Five minutes later they ran into a young man who was no ordinary young man, but rather the god Hermes in disguise. “Yo,” he said. “You’re going to need an antidote to Circe’s magic. Trust me on this.”
“Should I trust him?” Jack whispered to Stephen.
“I’ll let you know,” Stephen murmured back.
“What you need is this herb; it grows wild around here, you’ll find some in no time. It’s got a black root and a white flower…” Hermes stopped as Stephen reached into his coat. “Er, yeah. That’s it all right. Black root….”
“It’s called ‘moly’,” Stephen informed him smugly.
“I’ll have to remember that.” Hermes cleared his throat. “So, anyway. Where was I? Ah, good, you have your sword. When she raises her wand, you raise your sword. She’ll be terrified.”
“Antidote, sword,” Jack said, rather dazed and confused.
“You’ve got it! And then when she invites you into her bedchamber, you make her promise to cut out all the shenanigans first, or else she’ll rob you of your manhood.”
Stephen snorted loudly.
“No, seriously,” Hermes said, blinking at him.
“Thank you,” Stephen replied, trying not to laugh. “We’ll take it from here.” He hustled Jack away, while Hermes sputtered in protest behind them.
“Antidote, sword, shenanigans,” Jack said doubtfully.
“No shenanigans. No….” Stephen drew to a halt. “Look, let’s make it more simple.” He handed Jack the moly. “Chew that up well and swallow it down.”
They continued on their way as Jack chewed.
“All done? Fine. Now all you have to remember is ‘sword’, which I don’t think you’ll have any trouble with, and ‘no shenanigans.’”
“I block her wand with my sword and make her swear off the shenanigans.”
“You’ve got it, brother! I rejoice.”
They soon came to Circe’s house. “Now what?” Jack asked.
“You knock at the door. I’ll be watching through the window, with my pistol at the ready. I don’t think I’ll need it, though.”
“Hopefully not,” Jack muttered as Stephen disappeared around the side of the building.
Circe opened her door to his knock. “Admiral Aubrey, I assume? Your coming was foretold.”
She was quite lovely, but Jack steadfastly kept his mind on business. “I’ve come about my men, madam.”
“Come in, come in, dear sir. We’ll talk over a cup of wine. You must be thirsty after your walk.”
Jack was thirsty. He drained the cup dry. “Now…” he began.
“Now,” Circe said, with a glint in her eye. “Now you are in my power.” She pulled her wand from behind a cushion and lifted it….
Jack pulled his sword in a trice and knocked the wand from her hand. “You are mistaken,” he said coldly, and now the glint was in his eye, and it was a steely one.
From his position at the window, Stephen observed that Circe didn’t look terrified at all.
“Listen… handsome… I apologize for, you know….”
“Trying to drug me and put me under your spell?”
Circe made what she probably thought was a cute little face. “If you’ll just come into my bedchamber, I’ll be more than happy to make it up to you. And we can learn to trust one another! Two birds!”
“Uh.” Jack’s face flushed.
“Come on, Jack,” Stephen urged under his breath from the window.
“You’re tired. I can see that. My bed is soft, and holds many delights.”
Jack shook his head like a dog. “Shenanigans!” he cried.
Stephen winced hopefully.
“No more shenanigans!” Jack gripped Circe by the arm. “You must swear to that, and you must change my men back. Both of those things, and right now, I say. Do you hear?” He gave her a shake.
Stephen did a little happy dance.
Circe licked her lips and fluttered her eyelashes. “I promise! I’ll be good!”
Jack turned her loose. “Now get my men sorted.”
“Willingly. Willingly.” Circe turned to take a jar from a drawer in a table, and sped from the house. Jack followed her down the path to the sty. All the swine squealed at the sight of him, and lined up as though they were at divisions. Circe opened the gate and went among them, smearing a bit of salve onto their heads. One by one Jack’s crew turned back into Jack’s crew.
“Report back to the ship,” Jack told them crisply, overriding all their clamouring explanations.
The men dismissed, Jack walked with Circe back to the house. She took his hand when they reached the doorstep and slowly pulled him inside. “Now do you begin to trust me?” she asked him, smiling invitingly.
“You’ve done what I asked,” Jack said, swallowing.
“And I will do whatever you ask. Oh, come with me, be with me. Stay with me. Stay for a year, stay forever. I will make you the happiest man alive.”
Jack’s collar grew very tight. “I should really….”
“Just you and I, together, by ourselves, alone….” She leaned towards him.
Jack jumped nearly as high as Circe did. “Stephen!”
Stephen rose from a chair and sketched a bow. “Your servant, ma’am. Circe, was it?”
Circe held her head high, struggling to regain her composure. “Some call me that. To others I am known as Kirke.”
“Kirke, is it now? Well, then. That explains some things to me.” Stephen peered at her with seeming good nature, a smile curving his lips.
Circe narrowed her eyes. “Pray tell.”
“Certainly. Firstly, madam, our ship is called Surprise. Not Enterprise. It’s an easy mistake to make.”
Circe began to look nervous. “Your words mean less than nothing to me.”
Jack gave him a confused look and scratched an ear.
“Secondly,” Stephen stepped forward and put a possessive hand on Jack’s arm, “you have apparently mistaken Admiral Aubrey for an Orion slave girl, which is really not an easy mistake to make, for all love, his skin being not the slightest bit green at all, let alone his not being a girl.”
Jack cleared his throat. “Stephen, my dear fellow. I am afraid you spent too much time in the sun today, and without your hat. I do not think you are quite the thing.” He looked at Stephen with anxious eyes.
“How dare you interfere!” Circe seethed.
“Ask him.” Stephen stepped away from Jack. “’Come with me, be with me, stay with me.’ Go ahead. Ask him.”
“Admiral. Dear Jack. Oh, my darling! Let us send this little man away, and rest ourselves on fine linens, and give of ourselves each to the other, finding pleasure in one another’s arms. I entreat you to stay with me and be my love!”
Jack pried her clutching hands off his lapels. “I’m terribly sorry to disappoint you, but I really must be getting Stephen back to the ship. He’s not at all the thing, do you see. Green skinned girls and so forth. You see how it is.”
Circe shot Stephen a death glare.
Stephen coughed. “She sees how it is, Jack.”
“Well, come along then, Stephen.” Jack put a bracing arm around him and they both started for the door. “Wait!” He turned them back around.
Circe stood in the middle of the room, hands on hips and lips pressed tightly together. “What?” she snapped.
“Sorry to trouble you, but if you wouldn’t mind, could you tell us how to get home to England from here?”
“Go to hell,” she growled.
Jack blinked. “I don’t think that was necessary, was it? It was a simple enough question. If you didn’t want to answer it, all you had to do was….”
“Sail. Your ship. To Hades,” she said slowly and distinctly.
And so they did.
Chapter 6: The Underworld
“Hades? The Hades?” Jack tapped his compass and peered at it again. “Where away?”
“Homer hardly gives the exact latitude and longitude, for all love!” said Stephen, thumbing through his slim leather-bound book. “But if Circe spoke the truth, the opening to the Underworld should be approximately hereabouts, give or take a few minutes or seconds or whatever navigational divisions you mariners prefer. Let me see what instructions Odysseus had. First, of course, you must dig a small trench with your sword. Ah, perhaps here would be preferable, in the soft sand of the beach.”
“With my sword?” asked Jack. “But that would scratch it. Killick would have my hide, was I to go back to the barky with my blade all ahoo. Could I not just use a spade?”
“Spade, sword, one of those barbaric boarding-axes of yours if it takes your fancy,” replied Stephen. “Dig a trench however you choose, my dear, and fill it with blood. Then the spirits of the dead shall rise up and speak.”
“Any particular spirits, Stephen?” Jack looked uneasy.
“Who can tell? We must retrieve the message of which Circe spoke, brother. We must speak to whomever should rise, be they old comrades, enemies or lovers.” Stephen was no happier at this prospect than Jack; they had both lost many friends over the decades, and many foes, too, who might have wanted the last word.
“Well,” said Jack grimly, “We should have some blood-sausage left from the last bullock slaughtered. Killick, Killick there! Pass the word for the ship’s butcher!”
Stephen shook his head. “It must be fresh blood, straight from a sacrificial victim’s throat.” He pulled out a lancet and shaved the hairs off his arm thoughtfully. “A gannet might suffice.”
Jack turned rather pale. “By all means, Doctor,” he said hastily, “by all means, a gannet. I shall be over here, digging.”
Half an hour later, when Stephen had watched the seamen exhaust themselves chasing seabirds all over the small rocky island, and when he had finished bandaging the resultant scrapes and gull-pecks, he pulled out a pistol, swiftly took aim, and shot a distant gannet through the head. Taking the bird over to Jack’s exactly-squared trench, he slit its throat and allowed the blood to drip into the hole. The sand split with a strange rumbling sound and an eerie mist crept up, quickly enveloping the island.
Jack shivered in the sudden cold. “What is the right w-way to speak to spirits, Stephen? I h-hardly know the etiquette.”
Stephen peered at his book, but the text was illegible in the foggy gloom. “I will admit to you, joy, that I have not had previous converse with the dead,” he said in a whisper, and then, raising his voice, “O Spirits, show thyselves and reveal to thy supplicants the secrets of the underworld! Uh, if you please, that is.”
A curl of mist swirled and thickened, forming itself into the semblance of a human figure, which dipped its head to the trench and rose with gore dripping from its mouth.
“Why, Jacky dear! How you have grown!” it said.
Jack looked aghast. “N-n-n-nurse? But you are... You have... you have b-blood on your chin.”
His old nurse wiped her ghostly chin on her ghostly kerchief. “Thank you, pet. What is it you was wanting? I’ll warrant you didn’t expect to see me, did you, my lamb?”
“Well, I hardly... That is, of course it’s lovely to see you again, dear nurse,” Jack floundered. “It is only that I had supposed we might meet, oh, Lord Nelson, or Admiral Collingwood perhaps.”
“Or Teiresias! Homer mentions Teiresias, the Theban soothsayer. I could translate,” put in Stephen hopefully.
“Oh no, dear,” replied the old woman comfortably, “Teiresias is on shore leave. But Lord Nelson did send a message for you, Jacky. He told me to tell you that you must not eat the sheep of the sun-god.”
Jack looked puzzled. “Sun-god? Is that a pun?”
“We shall not do any such thing,” said Stephen, in a determined tone. He tapped the Odyssey. “We had enough trouble with the lotus-eaters—I shall ask Sir Joseph Blaine to suppress that chapter from the record. And indeed there are many chapters in here best left out; we have no intention of losing as many men and ships along the way as Ulysses did. Let us not even mention the possibility of the sun-god’s sheep to the Surprises, and then there will be no temptation for them to resist.”
“No sheep. Very well,” said Jack. “Was there any other message, nurse?”
“No, dearie. Well, Lord Nelson said that death will come to you out of the sea, but then what does that old fart know? If he was really the least bit prophetic he would not have stood in the path of a bullet, that’s what I say.”
“Oh,” said Jack blankly. “Death out of the sea? Well, my purpose is to sail beyond the sunset until I die, so that is no great shock. Did he mention anything else?”
“Let me see, dear. ‘Death will come to you out of the sea, in old age, surrounded by a prosperous people.’”
“Prosperous people? Do you hear that, Stephen?” cried Jack, smiling now and thumping the Doctor on the back. “Why, my people must mean you and the crew, and prosperous means prizes. A blessing on Lord Nelson for his kind message! Come, Stephen, we must away. Fare well to thee, dear nurse, and pray tell Lord Nelson that we shan’t touch those sun-god sheep with a barge-pole. Gods bless, now.”
The ghost of the old woman nodded, blew him a kiss, and slipped back into the earth. As she faded from sight, the sun grew stronger, burning off the mists, and the rift to the Underworld was closed.
“Come on, then, Stephen,” said Jack cheerfully, turning away from the trench. “On to the next chapter! There’s not a moment to lose!”
Chapter 7: The Siren Call
The Siren Call
Jack sat pricking the ship’s course on his chart, head bent low to the paper; he was not consciously aware that it was the passing of time that had made his close vision blurred and onerous, and would not have admitted it if his physician had told him so, though the details of the Mediterranean coastline wavered in and out of focus as his eyes watered.
“Humph,” he muttered. “If the winds continue so far west of their usual, we shall see Egypt again before ever we see England. Aiolos is a crabby fellow if he is still angry at us after all this time, a damned awkward crabby fellow, upon my word.”
Stephen, dissecting barnacles by candlelight at the other end of the table, took off his spectacles, rubbing his eyes with a salty hand and then wincing.
“You may call me superstitious, my dear, but should we not rather propitiate than impugn the gods and those beloved of them, especially the Keeper of the Winds? Let us hope he will yet relent. Still and it would be no great hardship to be warm a little longer, joy. Sure my tendons and ligaments alike feel the benefit, as must yours. Would we be passing near that small archipelago we so neglected on our passage out, at all? The archipelago near which we saw the albino frigatebird?”
“Hell’s teeth, I hope not, indeed. Uncharted, with surf visible from leagues away – I hope never to come within two-score sea miles as long as we float. No, Stephen, you must not pine for inaccessible islands, but if the winds should stay unfriendly and we be forced so far south, what say you to a week in the Nile delta?”
“Well,” said Stephen, “I should not say no to that. I should never say no to that.”
It was with a somewhat forced geniality, however, that he examined the chart and listened to Jack’s explanations of prevailing winds and their variations, the weatherliness or otherwise of the Surprise, and the inadvisability of approaching iron-bound coasts while the etesian winds blew; and he soon afterwards retired to his own small dark foetid cabin in the orlop with a mumbled excuse about consulting his authorities on African avifauna.
Jack sighed, stretched out his cramped legs, and went on deck to relieve Mowett. With so many of the gunroom and oldsters in the sick-berth – Porter, Adamson, Rickman, Quayles – he had been standing watches again for the past fortnight, his comings and goings disrupting the Doctor’s sleep to the extent that Stephen’s retreat to the official tri-cornered little space allocated below decks to the ship’s surgeon was neither unreasonable nor unexpected; but it left Jack to return from each shift to a cold cot in a cold cabin, and no companionable berth-mate with whom to exchange the meaningless idle commonplaces that, with an answering smile, could make their austere, cramped life tolerable.
He reminded himself that he must speak to Stephen about the length of the sick-list – not in any accusatory way, of course, but because the remaining senior officers were becoming hollow-eyed and exhausted, and none of the younger midshipmen was fit to stand a watch in such island-strewn seas, beset by untrustworthy changeable winds, even had they the support of a full and healthy crew in place of the current half-complement of pallid limping slow-witted muddlers who were now huddled half-slumbering in the ship’s waist. Jack would have suspected scurvy, had he himself not overseen the mixing of lime-juice into the grog ration. As it was, his plan of stopping in Alexandria to recruit more hands looked increasingly prudent, as well as useful in giving the Doctor the chance of a run ashore to recruit his good temper.
Jack watched the moonlit seas breaking on the Surprise’s windward quarter, glanced up at the sails, called for the starboard mainsheet to be loosed a trifle, and sighed again. Stephen would certainly be doing everything in his power to keep his sick-list to a minimum – his dedication to duty could not be faulted; but his temper had been short and his moods uncertain for some time now, perhaps – now that Jack thought it over – perhaps ever since peace had come, the blessed peace that Stephen had worked for, risked everything for, so often looked forward to; but a peace that had destroyed half of his spirit along with the careers of many of his shipmates, there being little hope of promotion for anyone below post-rank and little hope of a sea-going command for those above. Whether the cessation of hostilities with France had also ended Stephen’s intelligence activities, Jack did not know and had not liked to ask. As far as it was possible to judge in so secretive a soul, however, it seemed clear that some sense of purpose had been lost, that Stephen did not greatly care – for his own sake at least – whether or not the Surprise ever reached journey’s end, and that he followed Jack more from inertia than conviction.
Jack stepped to the binnacle’s gentle glow and checked the compass: west-south-west, the Surprise being a weatherly little frigate, game in spite of her age. It would be better, he thought, to get back to England as soon as could be managed without direct disobedience of his Admiralty orders. A week in Alex, a brief stop in Gib, and they could still be home for Christmas, gods willing. Sophie and Brigid between them might know how to shake Stephen out of his self-neglectful passivity, his polite complaisant distance, his unspoken but evident misery.
A parcel of sailcloth lying just to starboard of the binnacle caught Jack’s eye, and he stooped to examine it, frowning. It clanked as he began to unwrap it, revealing a dozen marlin-spikes bundled up with a score of axe-heads and pike-points, all coated in a thin layer of rust, dull in the moonlight. Anger began to rise up in him; it was inexcusable that the implements should have been left out on deck long enough to corrode, and idiocy to have left them in that particular spot. How was it that no one had noticed them? How could he have failed to spot them himself? He swore under his breath.
Hauling the bundle to the other side of the binnacle confirmed his suspicions: the compass needle swung round, drawn by the iron. For the past several days, with ever-looming clouds obscuring the sky and preventing both noon observations and celestial navigation, they had been plotting their course by dead-reckoning, reliant on compass directions combined with estimates of their speed, never an entirely accurate process even when calculated by experienced sailors in a ship making as little leeway as the Surprise. Now it was clear that they might be far south of their supposed path, far enough south, indeed, to be in danger of running foul of Stephen’s damned archipelago with all its unsounded shoals and reefs.
Furiously he roared out orders to reduce sail, and the remnants of his crew went obediently to take in sail, leaving the ship coasting very gently along under reefed topsails alone, so that if she struck on a shoal in the darkness she would at least strike with minimal force. Obediently, yes, but sullenly, as if they too no longer cared when or whether their vessel reached home waters. It must be scurvy, Jack thought, or perhaps simple physical exhaustion mixed with hopelessness, a dwindling belief in their admiral’s leadership, his once-vaunted luckiness. His anger began to dissipate into self-recrimination: it was useless to curse at or punish a crew when it was their leader who had failed them.
It was not until the next day, however, that Jack began to understand just how dark a situation he and his men were really sailing into.
It started badly enough, when Jack, weary after a night’s anxious watching for distant surf and keeping the lead-line going constantly, confronted Stephen at breakfast over the extent of the sick-list. He had not of course intended to be confrontational, merely hoping to hurry the release of one or two prime hands, but Stephen, looking as if he too had spent a wretched sleepless night, was obviously not disposed to be either patient or helpful. He cut Jack’s courtesies short with a rude, not to say downright mutinous, remark about officious meddling commanders too greedy to reach their complement to give a fig for their own charges’ health; and when Jack enquired as calmly as he could as to the trustworthiness of the supplies of lime-juice, Stephen’s curtness gave way to outright rage, unprecedented in one usually so contained.
“Is this what we have come to, what I must now endure at your hands?” he hissed, automatically keeping his voice low for Killick’s benefit. “After all these long years, to have but one purpose left to me, one skill I may still practise, and that so little respected that any mere ignorant untaught yahoo of a sailor may tell me to my face that my diagnoses are suspect, my patients malingering, my medications adulterated? Is it for this that you drag me to the ends of the earth? Shame on you, Jack!” – the last words almost spat out, as he gathered a random armful of books, stacked his tins of specimens precariously on top and stamped out of the Great Cabin as noisily as his meagre bulk allowed, heedless of Killick’s mate Grimble who had been crouching at the keyhole.
Jack poured himself the remains of the coffee and went on eating breakfast mechanically until the last fried egg was gone. Then he called for Killick, instructing him to wait half a glass and then take a fresh pot of coffee down to the Doctor. Poor old Stephen – he would no doubt be more human and forgiving after two or three hot cups; and Jack knew that in his usual inarticulate blundering way he had given the Doctor’s pride a cruel blow.
“What a clumsy oaf I am, and he so touchy these days. I had best not mention the sick-list again,” he thought, stumbling into his cabin, throwing off his outer clothes, lying down in his cot and falling as instantly into sleep as if his soul had never a burden to trouble it.
When his exactly-trained stomach awakened him half a glass before dinner, he knew instantly that something was not quite right with the ship. Something in the creaks and vibrations of her working, something in her movement, told him even before he went on deck that his orders had not been precisely followed. And so it transpired: though it was true that the stiff breeze had veered further into the west, necessarily slowing their progress, the Surprise was capable of sailing a good deal closer to the wind than her present course. At his curt order, the larbowlines jumped readily enough to rectify the trim of the sails, bringing her as far into the wind as she could go and holding her there close-hauled, but it seemed to him that they eyed him with an air of surly triumph.
“Another ten miles of westing to make up. Damn their eyes, the lubberly dogs. A mere parcel of romantic fools, the lot of them,” he muttered, glaring at the unfortunate midshipman whose lack of seamanship had allowed the error to go uncorrected for so long.
He strongly suspected that the crew would have heard an account, probably via Killick, of their admiral’s quarrel with his cabin-mate; and that, with their natural sympathy for the underdog, they meant to console Stephen by bringing him within sight of his beloved archipelago, his untrod semi-mythical paradise, with its very real and deadly reefs of which they were ignorant. Jack would have been astonished to learn that he had raised his hand to Stephen, threatened to beat him on the bare breech like a middie and sworn to have him flogged at the grating even as the smaller man pleaded the protection of his warrant; but he was not surprised by his men’s affection for and loyalty to the Doctor, merely dismayed by its results.
Returning to dinner, Jack was met only by a disapproving sniff from his steward.
“Is Dr Maturin not to dine today?” he asked, diffident in the face of such moral authority.
“Which he took his dinner with the Gunroom an hour ago, didn’t he, on account of being half-clemmed, what with his breakfast took off him and all. Here, the soup’ll go cold if it ain’t et up this very minute. Sir.”
Another ten painful miles of westing, another day and night of incessantly trimming the sails and badgering the exhausted, morose men to eke every possible cable’s length of progress from their ship.
The next afternoon, staggering unshaven and frowzy from his cot, Jack realised again with a cold feeling in his vitals that something was amiss with the Surprise’s motion. She was heeled hard over, straining, yet wallowing slowly with the cross-seas. He ran up to the quarterdeck and then from stern to stem, double-checking her sails and rigging: all in order, as much as she could carry and not a stitch too heavy, every sail held at the theoretically perfect angle, every sheet at the ideal tension, and still she laboured like a Dutch-built tub, making more leeway than headway.
Mowett was abjectly apologetic but mystified as to the cause, able only to list what had not worked: taking a reef in the topsails, shaking them out, easing the wheel a trifle. Two sturdy bosun’s mates stood there now, their faces as strained as the ship as they fought to hold her to her course.
Jack dismissed his lieutenant to his rest and paced the quarterdeck for a few minutes, unusually aware of the men’s gaze covertly following him. Self-conscious, he lengthened his stride a shade too far, so that a sudden lurch of the deck flung him against the leeward rail; and there, with the wind whipping strands of hair into his reddened eyes, he finally saw what was wrong.
A cable, just a couple of feet of cable, cutting at a sharp angle from the corner of the aftmost port-lid into the sea below, a cable pulled taut by whatever it was holding in the turbid waters. Jack knew in his heart what it must be, but no logical deduction could make him believe such a thing without proof. He called for block and tackle, watching without another word as the men under their incompetent flustered midshipman bungled their task, tangling ropes and tripping each other up, taking a full hour to rig a simple line from the yardarm to the cable and heave up its burden.
A drag-sail. The most reluctant, most optimistic mind could not but recognise the lashed spars with the old storm-staysail attached to them as a makeshift drag-sail, designed to pull the ship back from her intended course; nor could it fail to see that the lashing had been expertly done. Not the work of a single man, nor yet a single idle hour, nor something that could have been heaved overboard without the collusion of several officers.
Jack stared at it, and then at his men, dawning realisation twisting like a snarled rope in his belly. The Surprises were all hand-picked volunteers, thorough-going seamen and old and trusted shipmates, all of whom had risked their lives again and again for their ship and their admiral. It was unthinkable that they could conspire against him to this extent without severe provocation, even if it were possible that some sea-lawyer amongst them had been turning their heads with subversive talk. If they had been persecuted, it had been at the gods’ hands, not Admiral Aubrey’s. Yet here was unambiguous proof of culpable foolishness, if not outright mutiny.
“Cut it loose,” he ordered finally in a low, cold voice. “Cut it loose and keep this course. We may weather the islands yet, and if we do not, then may the gods have mercy on all our souls.”
All night Jack laboured to coax his ship westwards, then west-south-west, then south-west as the breeze backed increasingly against him, but as the sky lightened with the dawn the archipelago he so dreaded was visible not five miles off, shrouded in low-lying cloud. It was clear that the Surprise could not weather the northernmost isle, not with the best will in the world, and equally clear that it was not her people’s will that she should.
No single man, no matter his seniority in the naval hierarchy nor his theoretical authority, could sail a ship alone – not without the acquiescence of his crew, however forced that acquiescence might be. There had been no formal mutiny, nor even cannonballs trundled across the decks in the darkness, yet Jack knew by the set of the crew’s jaws that he had lost them, that he could no longer compel them to their duty, that his command had, in this matter at least, failed. They had followed him for years across the Mediterranean, braving hardship and horror alike, trusting him – in spite of his repeated misfortunes and broken promises – to lead them home, but now, finally, their faith was exhausted.
Perhaps their respect might be regained in time, and perhaps… perhaps – but Jack checked himself. On this peacetime mission he had no Royal Marines to back him up and force the forecastle hands at bayonet point to do their duty, and time was something he could not spare. His only hope now was to accept that he could not avoid the archipelago entirely, and to try to slip between the islands without grounding. He had no chart of the passages, nor any reason to suppose that those channels were navigable, but he was damned if he’d let the men under his orders – whatever that now meant – throw away their lives for no reason but their own stubborn stupidity. If they were to survive, there was not a moment to lose.
“All hands! All hands to wear ship!” he yelled, in as stern and level a voice as he could manage, and to his boundless relief the men ran to their stations as if there had been no unspoken mutiny, as if they had all along done exactly what had been asked of them. If they understood the danger they were in, it did not show in their expressions as they hauled on the sheets under Mowett’s direction, cheerful now that they were heading openly for the archipelago.
Jack studied his lieutenant’s face: ingenuous and honest, with the slightly foolish bumbling look of a country peasant. Could it possibly be true that Mowett had plotted against him? The young man was fond of Stephen, certainly, but Jack had always supposed him equally attached to his admiral. No, impossible that such an amiable, loyal officer should have been involved in such reckless conspiracy, even if Stephen in his innocence of the dangers had spoken wistfully to him of the islands’ lure.
Stephen himself clambered up the companion ladder a few minutes later, clad in his oldest, least respectable breeches and a filthy apron, bloody up to his elbows and with a brownish smear across one brow. He glanced in obvious astonishment at the nearest isle, now so close that sparse scrubby pine trees were visible along its cliff-tops, and stood waiting hesitantly to catch Jack’s eye, uncertain whether to cross to the Admiral’s side of the quarterdeck without permission, or whether their quarrel, several days old now but never formally patched up, still held good.
“Why, Stephen, there you are. You have been operating, I collect?” Jack spoke lightly; there was no point in alarming his friend, who could never be brought to a proper understanding of the risks inherent in skirting coastlines.
“Yes… yes, reducing Maidston’s open tibial-fibular fracture, an ill-fated fall from the mainyard; I was in two minds whether to amputate straight off or wait for the putrefaction – but Jack, you have surely noticed this large island right ahead of us, just past the long pole, there? Were we not to avoid land at all cost?” He leant out on the rail to watch the gulls diving into the surf.
Jack grabbed Stephen’s apron-strings just as he leant out a fraction too far, and pulled him back aboard. “Well, the weather gods were against us, it seems. Have you done with your rounds? You might stay here if you promise not to step on the rail again. Reade, a cheese of wads for the Doctor to sit on, a basin of water to rinse his hands, and jump down to my cabin to fetch him my second-best glass. Williamson, keep your eyes on the lead-line, damn you!” He turned back to Stephen. “With luck, you might see your frigatebird again, and some good may come of this blasted scrape. But you must forgive me, I must attend to…”
“Do you mean to land, since fate has brought us here?” interrupted Stephen, his eyes lighting up. “Frigatebirds are unknown in these latitudes, and if the birds are unusual, think of the terraneous fauna! Think of the flora, Jack!”
“Of course I do not mean to attempt a landing. What a fellow you are! The ship would be beaten to pieces in a moment on those cliffs, even if we could penetrate the reefs. I mean to pass between the nearest two islands…” The last words were spoken distractedly, as Jack’s attention was caught by a piece of driftwood swirling by, held in a current pulling it southwards. How strong was the tidal race between the islands? An hour yet to the height of the flood: that would give the greatest depth of water over the reefs and shoals, but from the turn of the tide the current would start to increase. Tides in the Mediterranean were generally almost negligible, yet from the driftwood’s rapid motion it was obvious that the tide here was stronger than usual, far stronger. He turned to Mowett.
“Shake out the topsails, if you please, Mr Mowett, and hose them down. And keep that lead-line going! Tell me at once if we reach ten fathom, d’ye hear me, there?”
“Aye aye, sir.” Mowett was already turning away to bawl at the topmen. The faltering breeze which the Surprise had fought so long had now almost completely died down, and an acre of sailcloth hung limply on her yards, bellying here and there as fitful airs caught it. Wetting the sails might just hold enough of the breeze to win the ship steerage-way.
“Ready-oh, and belay! Roll out that hose, there. Malward, Abbott, the pump – heave! Heave!” shouted Mowett, and the men strained at the seawater pump as he and Jack aimed the hose at the mainsail. Heave, heave, and a stream of water spurted, died, and spurted thinly again, trickling uselessly down onto the deck as leaks gushed out from the canvas pipe, perished right along its length.
Mowett stared stupidly at it, and one or two of the hands laughed, a startled guffaw quickly stifled.
“By the mark, ten fathom!” cried the lead-line midshipman into the silence.
Jack swore, shockingly loud. The rock-bound coastline was a thousand yards away and fast approaching. If they did not weather that headland… “Mr Mowett, rouse up and ready the sweeps, and start lowering the boats – all the boats.”
Jack ran to hurry the men laying out and securing the towing lines, as the slow, painfully slow, business of lifting and lowering the boats on the booms got underway. “Oh, oh for quarter-davits,” he thought, and not for the first time. “Lay out the cables and – what is it, Mr Mowett?”
His lieutenant was pale under his tan. “Sir… Beg to report, sir, that the launch and cutters are damaged, sir. They will not swim.”
“Damaged?” Jack darted to the blue cutter and stared at its planking, normally hidden by the jolly-boat stowed inside it but now laid bare, great splintered gashes across its hull. A hurried inspection of the launch and red cutter told the same tale.
“By the deep, eight fathom!” came the cry from the leadsman.
“The jolly-boat and Dr Maturin’s skiff are sound, sir,” stammered Mowett.
“Then lower them, damn it. Lower whatever will swim.” Jack glanced up at the sails as they creaked in a sudden gust, and then to leeward where the horizon was blurred by a rapidly gathering darkness. “And double-reef the topsails before that squall hits. Where are the sweeps?”
“Mostly broken, sir. It seems…”
“Seems? There ain’t time for seems, William. Rouse out any that are whole – quick, man – we can fend off with them, at least, if gods forbid we come so close. No time to strike the topmasts, but send a reliable hand to check the guns are secured, double-breeched, and set an extra guard on the spirit-room – and get the Doctor below.”
The topmen were out on the yards already, struggling with armfuls of flapping canvas as the wind rose to a shriek and rain began to sting their faces.
“Seven fathom! Seven fathom, sir.” The voice of the midshipman repeating the leadsman’s findings was shrill with anxiety.
Jack stared hard at the cliffs, then at the roiling sea, and then ran over and grasped the lead-line, casting it for himself and hauling it back up with horrifying speed. The watermark showed not seven but four fathoms, and barely that. The leadsman and middie looked blankly at him, and then at the island with an eerie yearning. Jack’s stomach lurched. “What in hell’s name… gods rot you all!”
The gale was howling now, as if in triumph; the nearest reef a biscuit-toss away on the starboard quarter, and the current tugging them eastwards along the coast towards the headland. If they could but weather the point and catch the ebb…
Jack leapt down into the jolly-boat as soon as it hit the water, followed by a score of men tumbling after him, too many, shouting and floundering and elbowing each other into the sea. He grabbed at the skiff, pushed four men into it, yelling at them to “Row, row!”, and shoved off in the jolly-boat with his own oar. Half a dozen of the steadier hands followed his example, and in a few strokes they ran clear, pulling hard away from the ship, willing the towlines to tauten, and ignoring the shrieks of those men still flailing in the water.
“Pull! Pull for all your worth!”
But the oarsmen were faltering already, their gaze straying to the Surprise, to their drowning shipmates, to the island, booming with the echoes of the surf, with the headland still three hundred yards away. Too far. A couple of them had given up entirely and sat leaning on their oars as if in a dream.
“For gods’ sakes, pull!” Jack’s voice cracked on the last word. He glanced up at the ship and missed his stroke: Stephen was standing at the bow-rail, pointing at the reefs and laughing – laughing – as the seaman gathered around him on the fo’c’sle watched certain death approach, with blankness or even longing in their faces.
The rain was beating down and spume was flying; Jack’s face streamed with wetness – perhaps there were tears too, perhaps not. He knew his efforts could never save the ship, not unless his men would follow him. Throwing down his oar, he sprang up onto the thwart, staggering as the boat rolled. “Stephen!” he cried into the gale. “Stephen, gods, Stephen…”, and he waved both arms wildly, heedless of the small craft’s heaving motion.
The small dark-clad figure on the fo’c’sle turned towards him. Hesitated. That strange pale gaze swept over him, towards the shoreline where it lingered with a fierce craving. Then Stephen blinked, and looked back at Jack as if bewildered, laughter forgotten.
Stephen darted suddenly at the second lieutenant, snatching a pistol from him. For a moment he stood swaying on the deck, staring at the gun in his hand.
“Stephen, please, no! I… We…”
The Doctor raised the pistol to his head. Then he turned and fired desperately at the cliff-top, crumpling at the rail as if the ball had ricocheted into his own chest.
Jack crashed back into his seat. “Pull! Pull!” he roared, hauling ferociously at his oar, and his men hesitated only a moment before they too caught up their oars as if a spell had been broken. They rowed furiously, hauling the half-swamped boats faster than the gale could claw them back, and the ship was hauled with them, now mere yards from the reef. The hands still aboard were wrenching the wheel around and fending their vessel off the overhanging cliffs with the half-dozen sweeps left intact. It was too late to avoid impact: the bowsprit went by the board, and the mainyard caught in a fissure and snapped like kindling, scattering the decks with rigging and tumbled blocks, but some of the seamen ran to cut the wreckage free even as others secured the remaining spars – no shouting now, no panic, just discipline amongst chaos, the Royal Navy as Jack had always believed in it.
Twenty yards, now, to the headland. Jack’s arms burned with the effort – another pull, another pull – the ship’s keel ground against submerged rocks, screaming, but still she floated, still she moved – another pull, and the current grabbed at the little boats, swirling them round the headland, the battered ship following them round into the swift tidal race between the island and its nearest neighbour.
Gasping, the men slumped over their oars. Jack glanced up at the Surprise, searching the deck for Stephen until he spotted him catting into the scuppers, alive and not visibly hurt. Under Mowett’s command the hands began to haul the boats back to the ship, watching anxiously meanwhile for signs of reefs or sandbars. The channel here was deep and fast-flowing, and the wind, abated though it was by the island’s lee, took them through it under reefed topsails at a cracking pace, with never less than a dozen fathoms under their keel. Before noon, the Surprise had passed the second island to where the horizons spread out into the wide blue expanse of the open sea, and safety.
Jack clambered back onto his ship, where the exhausted men stood with their heads bowed, waiting for his judgement. Mowett stepped forward, shaking slightly, opened his mouth and said nothing.
Jack clapped him on the shoulder. “Thankee, Mr Mowett,” he said quietly, and nodded at his crew. “Thank you all. Mr Mowett, the ship’s state, if you please.”
Mowett hesitated only for a second. “Aye aye, sir. Two holes below the waterline, but Mr Lamb has one leak plugged and t’other one almost fixed. The pumps were shipped an hour since: six feet of water in the well and falling.”
“Carpenter’s crew are shaping a spar for it now, sir.”
“Well done, Mr Mowett. We shall lie to and inspect the hull tomorrow. The pumps to be kept going, meanwhile.” He looked around for Stephen, and saw him crouched on a piece of shattered mast, with Killick propping him upright. “Killick, there! Have Dr Maturin taken to his cot in my cabin. Warm clothes, mind.”
“Aye aye, sir, warm clothes it is, and hot coffee for you, sir, soon as the stove’s lit.”
“Thank you, Killick. Mr Mowett, my compliments to Mr Lamb, and he may leave the shaping of the replacement yardarm until the bowsprit is shipped. You may tell the cook to light the galley fires, too. Double-shotted plum duff and grog for all hands, as quick as he pleases.”
The next evening, after a long but satisfying day overseeing the knotting and splicing of damaged rigging and the swaying-up of a new yard to the mainmast, Jack stood at the stern windows, watching the moonlit wake as it stretched ever-lengthening across the now-calm waters.
Stephen paused in his reading, hesitated, put down his book and hesitated again. “Jack,” he began, “Jack, after all that has happened you must at least permit me to offer my apologies for…”
“There, brother,” Jack interrupted, turned round with a smile, “do not let us start apologising to each other or we shall never have done with it. Was I to hang every foremast jack who was led to forget his duty, I should run out of rope. No, no, we were all led astray, and I shall not start a witch-hunt now.” He glanced at Stephen. “I do not suppose you have heard what it is the hands are saying? About witchcraft, I mean.”
“So I have, but you do not believe in witches, I am sure. You are not superstitious, Jack.”
“Of course I ain’t. But…” he dropped his voice, “Mowett thinks they saw a creature on the cliffs, a white shape; something like a huge pale frigatebird, or then again like a ghost or spirit.”
“There are no frigatebirds in these latitudes, my dear. I was quite mistaken, my wits adrift. The Fregatae are a tropical genus, as you will be aware, not to be seen in the Mediterranean.”
“Indeed, quite so.” Jack assumed an air of pious sagacity, a deeply stupid expression. “But something of that nature, all the same. They say they heard it singing, a sort of quavering cry.”
“The gale cried, sure, and the waves beat on the rocks; if there had been a ululating song above all the cacophony, it would have been impossible to identify it with any certainty,” replied Stephen cautiously.
“I did not hear anything of the sort.”
“You, if you will forgive me for pointing it out, my dear Jack, are all but deaf in one ear, as one might expect in one so fond of the cannon’s roar. Age comes to us all, with deafness as well as presbyopia, though we may be too vain to acknowledge it.”
“I believe I could hear a bird’s cry as well as anyone. Quite as well as anyone. Well, I do not pretend to understand quite what happened, but this I do know: you would not willingly have led the ship and the men into danger, and that is sufficient understanding for me.”
“I would not willingly have led you into danger, soul, not even for an albino frigatebird.” Stephen smiled ruefully at his friend, a smile that did not quite reach his eyes. “But by volition or no, I have been and shall likely remain a source of trouble for this vessel and her people, and I am of very little use to you, I find, save to cause you even more grey hairs than you possess already. Padeen can bandage heads and splint arms as well as I.”
“I wish you would not talk as if you was nothing but a sawbones, Stephen. It grieves me, you know it does.”
The Doctor bowed his head. “This is not the first misfortune on this cursed voyage which could be laid at my door. Were you to put me ashore, now, you might all do better for my absence.”
“Never mind that.” Jack gestured as if to brush away the absurdity of Stephen’s suggestion. “Just come here for a moment and tell me what you see.”
Stephen went and peered out at the wake. “Darkness – little but darkness, and that unending.”
Jack patted his shoulder. “Calmness,” he said. “Peace. Do you see how still the waters are? We have weathered the storm, and gods willing we may weather a few more yet.” He picked up his violin from the locker. “Listen, now, I believe I have discovered the purpose of this voyage.”
“Have you, so? The Admiralty has a purpose?” Stephen went over to his ’cello, sat down and took up his bow.
“Oh, those old men? Perhaps they may.” Jack plucked a few jaunty notes and then paused. “But I mean a purpose for us, brother, and here it is: if we make it to journey’s end together, why, there we are!”
“If we make it to journey’s end without killing each other first,” muttered Stephen, caressing the neck of his ’cello before starting to tune it.
“Exactly so.” Jack matched his tuning to Stephen’s, gliding without much thought into a wistful air of his own long-ago contrivance, an old favourite in which the ’cello joined here and there, Stephen breaking off at intervals to re-tune and to stretch out his fingers. At length the air metamorphosed into a jollier, more upbeat tune that marched both instruments to a triumphant conclusion.
“Pom, pom, pom! There!” cried Jack, and he leant over and tickled the tip of Stephen’s nose with his violin bow. “I cannot allow you to leave, do you see, else I should be left to play duets alone.”
“The lone duet! Nothing more pitiful, indeed there is not. Was it chamber music you were wanting, now, or a jig perhaps?” asked Stephen, leafing through a sheaf of tattered sheet-music.
Jack’s heart rose at Stephen’s levity, so long missed. “Oh, a stately adagio will have to do, for an old grey-haired fellow like me.”
“Is that so?” Stephen set aside his ’cello and stepped over to Jack, taking the violin from his hands and laying it on the locker. “I might be mistaken, but I did think I had seen you running about like a boy, earlier.” He reached up and released Jack’s hair from its queue, letting it fall gently round Jack’s face and his own.
Jack pulled him closer with a deep sigh of happiness, wrapping his arms about Stephen’s shoulders and kissing first one eyebrow and then the other. “I might have tired myself out, running about.”
“You might. You might be ready for your cot.” Stephen’s words were muffled against Jack’s chest.
“I might well,” agreed Jack amicably. “Shall we, then?” He loosened his grip and gestured towards the sleeping cabin.
“If you please.”
“You should say ‘aye aye sir’, you know, Stephen.”
“Do not push me, my dear.” Stephen gave him his most charmingly crooked grin as he opened the door to the sleeping-cabin and politely bowed for Jack to precede him. “…Sir.”
Chapter 8: Calypso
The music box had been a gift. Mr. Midshipman Aubrey had been sitting on the harbour wall at Plymouth, his ship preparing for a cruise of the West Indies. He had been watching the grey clouds scudding across the skies, the waves breaking below his feet and breathing the cool, salty sea air deep into his lungs. It had been then that she appeared; a dark-skinned lady with painted marks across her face, her hair matted into heavy locks. The sight of this exotic creature in such a familiar setting as Plymouth certainly could not help but make an impression on the young midshipman, and to his later shame Jack had stared quite openly at the woman as she'd approached him. She had an air of savage beauty about her; a beauty of something lovely and unpredictable, captivating but cruel. Oddly he had not been afraid of her, though for some strange reason he felt that perhaps he should have been.
She had smiled at his wondering face, her teeth shining against her lips like dark, creamy pearls.
“Is you watchin’ de sea, little Jack?”
Speechlessly he had nodded, for a moment baffled as to how she'd known his name - but then it had occurred to him that by ‘jack’ she could have just been addressing him as she would any other sailor. The woman’s smile had broadened.
“An’ do you lov’ de sea, little Jack?”
Again he'd nodded. Jack had loved the sea ever since he had first set eyes on it; when he was no more than three and his nurse had taken him to walk along the beach at Bournemouth. At the sight of the iron-grey water he had laughed in delight, escaping the grasp of his keeper and running towards the water’s edge where he’d sat with the waves lapping around his waist, cradling a small crab and a piece of seaweed against his infant chest. He had been scolded most dreadfully for getting his clothes wet and muddy, but it had been worth it for the sheer joy that moment had given him. Ever since then he had been longing to return to the sea.
The woman had continued to smile, apparently satisfied by his answer, taking a heavy silver locket from around her neck and placing it in his hands.
“Den keep dis safe, little Jack – fo’ de sea lov’s you in return.”
And then she was gone, apparently vanished into thin air. Jack had looked around amazed, searching this way and that along the line of the harbour front and the sea wall; but of the dark-skinned lady there was no sign. Save for the locket in his hand Jack could easily have sworn he had simply imagined her.
It was a few minutes after the woman had gone that he thought to open the locket, and he was surprised to find that it was in fact a music box. It played a sad, beautiful tune which seemed to shimmer through the air as it played, echoing across the harbour, off the sea wall and raising the waves themselves.
That night as he lay in his hammock aboard ship Jack had studied the gift again, turning the carefully crafted silver over and over in his hands, wondering at the lady who had given it to him. He had a feeling that the locket was old, along with an inexplicable sense that it had originally been a gift to someone else years before; but he knew not what led him to these conclusions. All he was certain of was that he felt he must keep it safe and let no one else know it was in his possession.
As sleep eventually overtook him, the locket still clutched in his hands under the blanket, a stray draft of night air had blown in through a crack in the planking, whispering across Jack's ear and feebly ruffling a few strands of his yellow hair.
“De sea will always lov’ you, little Jack…”
Stephen turned the music box over in his hands, studying it carefully.
"Sure, it is a very pretty thing, joy; and of great age too."
"So I thought," Jack said, perching on the stern locker next to Stephen. "You are the first to have seen it besides myself."
“What made you want to show it to me now?”
The admiral tilted his head to one side thoughtfully.
“Well, to tell the truth I am not exactly certain,” he admitted. “But what with all these strange goings-on that have plagued our voyage so far I suppose they must have jogged my memory.”
Stephen grunted, running his thumb over the shining silver, noting with some interest that his skin did not seem to leave a greasemark as it would on any other polished metal.
“And the woman who gave it to you; you truly saw nothing of her departure?”
“Just so. For a moment I believed that I had simply dreamt her – but there was the locket in my hand, so it could not possibly have been a dream, and you know I have never been much given to fantasy, Stephen. It was all most strange.”
“Quite,” Stephen murmured, frowning. “But truly no one else has ever seen it? I would have thought such a shine to be Killick’s handiwork.”
“You would think it – but truly, it ain’t. It’s never tarnished all the time I’ve had it, which I know is dashed odd for silver. Do you suppose it might be enchanted?”
“Who’s to say it could not be?” the doctor replied, and pressing the catch he flicked open the lid of the music box. As soon as he did so though there was a terrible screeching sound; a howling of wind, a crashing of waves and a mighty crack of thunder which made the Surprise lurch aggressively to one side, flinging the two men across the interior of the cabin.
“Mr. Pullings!” Jack bellowed, trying to find purchase to haul himself upright from the deck. But he need not have hollered, for the lieutenant burst into the cabin barely seconds later, clinging onto the doorframe to keep himself upright and wearing an expression of the utmost bewilderment on his face.
“A storm, sir!” he gasped. “It hit from out of the blue – honest, sir; there wasn’t a cloud in the sky! One moment nothing, then thunder, lighting and a monstrous bloody swell! Someone’s called it up against us, sir, they must have done!”
Too astonished himself to reprimand Pullings for his improper language, Jack cast his eyes across to the music box which had been flung across the cabin when they took a tumble. It was under his desk, still open and making a horrid, tinny sound which grated against his good ear. Instinctively he slid across the floor and caught up the music box, closing the lid with a snap. The tinny sound stopped, but outside the storm still raged, the ship still lurched violently as the men shouted and desperately tried to get the sails off her. She would broach any moment, Jack was certain, taking every single one of them down with her to a watery grave. He swore at the music box – the cause of this disaster, he was sure! – and despairing and angry, determined to destroy it, he crushed it between his massive hands… then the silver lid snapped open again, and the music box began to play.
The music was as sweet as he remembered; sweet, silvery and just as beautiful as the casing which was its home. It caught his breath, seemed to still time in the Great Cabin, each note shimmering in the air, off the water, halting the waves in their progress so that they were all a-quiver, as if waiting to be told what to do next.
Let us be saved, Jack wished. Let us now be saved!
And, amazingly, this seemed to be the command that the elements had been waiting on; for as soon as Jack had wished it the wind dropped, the waves sank once more into a calm sea, and the clouds rolled back, parting to let the sunlight stream in through the cabin windows.
Jack stared at the music box in his hand, astonished, struggling to comprehend what exactly had happened in those short minutes. Yet as he did so he thought he heard a soft laugh breeze past his ear, and a woman’s voice whispering so that it could barely be heard;
“...fo’ de sea lov’s you in return.”
Chapter 9: The Homecoming
‘Ah Stephen, we have had some wonderful adventures on our Quest, have we not, but it is even better to be home again!’ Jack Aubrey stood before the open windows of the Surprise’s Great Cabin, inhaled deeply and then coughed: the mixture of horse manure, rotting vegetation, Plymouth ooze and drowned dog being a trifle too noisome a smell for one more used to the clean sweet air of the open sea.
Stephen, being with child for the latest news, had gone ashore at his earliest opportunity to collect the mail and papers, and appeared distant and distracted as he answered, ‘To be sure, Jack, but here is the strangest thing in the world - you recall our loop year, do you not?’
‘The year that kept repeating itself? It would be hard not to: so many enemies and disasters to be dealt with, so very many miles sailed and logged, I was worn thin by it all, a mere wraith. Did you not remark it, Stephen?’
The doctor had not. In his view Admiral Aubrey was as portly as ever, but he chose to overlook it for the moment, having more pressing concerns.
‘The very one. It seems we have experienced another, but in reverse this time. According to the date on this newspaper and this letter from Sir Joseph Blaine, we have been gone not one year but seven and it is now the year 1827. Were it not for dear Joseph’s official seal upon this missive I should think someone was attempting a joke, but he is not given to facetiousness, particularly on so serious a matter. Jack my dear, let me pour you a glass of brandy. You are likely to be in need of it, I fear, for I have to tell you that according to this letter our prolonged absence brings you bad news.’
Jack paled as Stephen poured them both a generous measure of the liquid and held it out to him.
‘It seems your late and I must say hardly lamented mother-in-law appears to have put a codicil in your marriage contract to the effect that if you ever left Sophie on her own for seven years, your marriage would be instantly terminated and Sophie regarded legally as a widow – you recall the passage to which I refer?’
‘I can’t say that I do, no.’ Jack sat down heavily and drained his glass at one go.
Without a word Stephen refilled it before asking cautiously, ‘You did read the small print, did you not? I seem to remember urging you in the strongest possible terms to do so, at the time.’
‘I may have skipped a few paragraphs here and there; it was the most hellish long document, Stephen, and I ain’t a lawyer nor anything like, you know.’
‘That is exceedingly unfortunate. Because of this apparent reverse year, it seems we have been gone exactly seven years and three days and the codicil has therefore been enacted. Tell me, Jack, are you aware of any particular God or Goddess whose wrath you may have incurred for this to happen? Aphrodite, I would hazard, is the most likely candidate.’
‘Never met the lady, as far as I know.’
Stephen looked at his friend dryly, while privately telling over the very many women who had tried, and sometimes succeeded, in luring Jack into their beds: whatever he might say, Jack Aubrey was no stranger to Aphrodite’s charms.
‘Ah! I have the solution!’ Jack’s hand slapped decisively on the table. ‘It is simple. I will go to Sophie, explain this damned loop year business, lay it all before her and ask her to marry me again. It is only old mother Williams’ idea and not Sophie’s own; she will not hold to it, I am sure.’
‘Dear Jack, that will not answer at all, I am afraid. Sir Joseph also writes that if the sanction occurs, Sophie may not marry another Naval officer, nor indeed any military man, but must choose a husband from among the clergy, they not being known for their tendency to wander about. Indeed the contract insists upon it.’ Stephen scanned the lengthy letter rapidly. ‘Mrs Williams has gone so far as to stipulate that within a week of the allotted time period having expired, a contest is to be held among what suitors there may be for Sophie’s hand in marriage, else she loses everything – house, money, even the right to see her own children.’
‘What if nobody offers?’ asked Jack, with only the vaguest hope that this would happen.
Stephen looked at him in equal parts of affection and pity. ‘With Sophie? Is that likely? And anyway, apart from her own delightful charms which you yourself know so well, the contest awards some quite substantial remunerative incentives and a very fine living or two for the lucky cleric who wins her hand. Were it not for the fact that this abomination robs you of your wife and happiness, I should admire its thoroughness immensely. No, there is no getting out of it: Sophie must marry a clergyman and only a clergyman within the week or be cast out on the streets as a pauper.’
‘But Stephen – I ain’t dead! Legally perhaps, and even that I doubt, but what’s to stop me going up to Woolcombe and declaring it – who could deny me my Sophie after that?’
Once more Stephen consulted the letter in his hand and with raised eyebrows and pursed lips said, ‘It would seem an astonishingly large number of well paid toughs, armed with cudgels and various sharp implements designed to inflict maximum pain and damage on anyone who looks even vaguely connected with the sea, before ejecting them from the premises, according to Sir Joseph here. Mrs Williams really has been aggravatingly thorough in her plans, not to mention a little spiteful. However, do not be downcast, Jack, for I have a plan: you must disguise yourself as a clergyman, enter the contest and win Sophie back. It is no very great thing, a short test of religious knowledge and then a sermon to be preached, a mere nothing to an admiral, I am sure.’ Stephen looked triumphant, Jack markedly less so.
‘Oh, Stephen, I’m no blue-light admiral, you know, never have been. I have the greatest respect for men of the cloth, of course, but you know I can’t abide them on my ships, would far rather just have the Articles of War and be done with it. I barely know a God or Goddess outwith those connected with the sea. I would not know where to start, let alone preach a sermon.’
‘Never fret on that score, my dear; I shall write you a fine sermon, full of excellent pious thoughts and with no word longer than two syllables, or perhaps three at most. And from now until we arrive at Woolcombe, I shall take pains to drill you in your catechism. A perceived want of learning shall not separate you from your beloved Sophie, never in life!’ And with a determined wag of his finger, Stephen darted out in search of some priestly robes for his friend.
Stephen was true to his word and the next forty-eight hours were among the busiest and most tedious of Jack’s life. He could not sit down, even to eat, without a holy book or text being thrust beneath his nose, an appropriate passage or six underlined and the exhortation to read, read, read, for all love! Even a visit to the quarter gallery, normally a place Jack could rely on for a good twenty minutes of blessed privacy, became an opportunity in Stephen’s eyes for a question and answer session. The first time this had happened Jack had emerged, still buttoning his breeches, to ask irately whether a man was not even to be allowed to answer a call of nature in peace?
Stephen, leaning nonchalantly against the bulkhead, tract in hand, regarded him mildly. ‘Of course, Jack, if you wish it, but time is rather pressing, brother. We have a lot to do before the contest, and consider: while some bits of you may be otherwise engaged in the quarter gallery, your brain and mouth are not, and for the contest those are the most relevant parts. Now, shall we go through the order and precedence of the inhabitants of Mount Olympus again?’
When at last they mounted the chaise that would take them to Woolcombe, Jack’s spirits were very low indeed. Not only was he harassed and harried by Stephen’s constant questions, the disguise was damnably uncomfortable and he found himself tugging at the long robe’s tight collar incessantly. He also wore both a wig and a large broad-brimmed black hat pulled well down over his eyes so only the lower half of his face was visible. The wig was hot and itched atrociously, but it was better than cutting and dying his own hair, which had been Stephen’s first suggestion.
‘No. Absolutely not, I will not cut my hair,’ he had said, holding fast to the long queue which still had just enough yellow in it to be called buttercup, and which Stephen had regarded speculatively, scissors in hand. ‘This is how I have always been to Sophie and I will not change now; the hair stays.’ Jack did not regret this decision in the slightest, but he certainly regretted the necessity for the disguise.
‘Will there be many other suitors, do you think, Stephen?’ he asked dispiritedly.
‘I fear so, joy. Sir Joseph in his original letter mentioned thirty or forty candidates had already declared themselves, and in his latest he mentions the number has now risen to near sixty and is still growing. There is not room enough to house them all, so I believe they are camping out in the grounds in preparation for the great event, and we shall do the same. Killick has a tent and all the necessary accoutrements strapped to the roof of this conveyance.’
‘Sixty?! I had no notion there were as many as sixty clergymen within a carriage ride of Woolcombe, let alone sixty available to marry…’
‘My dear Jack, they are coming from all over the country – the lawyers acting on behalf of your late mother-in-law’s estate have advertised the contest in all the National newspapers. I believe there are even some come down from Scotland. Now, we are nearly there, and despite our best intentions you still look a little too like yourself for comfort, so be so good as to put these in.’ He held out his hand and in the open palm lay a set of false teeth.
Jack regarded them, appalled, but was too beaten down by the whole process to demur and glumly reached for them. ‘How do I look?’ he asked in a curiously lisping voice.
Stephen looked at the buck-toothed monstrosity before him, thought deeply for a moment or two, tried for one description, rejected it as too cruel by half, tried for another, and then finally said carefully, ‘I think it safe to say you look as unlike Admiral Jack Aubrey as is possible, my dear. I doubt there is a soul alive who would recognise you, which is all to the good for now. Are you ready? For I can see the gates and there are the lawyers to test potential suitors on their religious knowledge.’
Jack clasped his hands nervously and wished he could pull off the wig to scratch his head, so anxious was he. If they did not get past this first test, there was nothing more to be said or done; he would have lost Sophie forever, and it did not bear thinking about.
‘Name?’ asked a bored, somewhat pimply young lawyer, flanked on either side by some vicious and well armed hard-cases that would not have looked out of place in a press gang.
Jack opened his mouth to reply and was rewarded by Stephen gripping his thigh in a vice-like hold to silence him as he himself replied smoothly, ‘The Reverend John O’Dessy and Father Esteban D’Lerida.’
‘Foreigners, then? We are getting all sorts here for this, and are both you gentlemen intending to compete?’
‘Not at all, it is only the good reverend here who wishes to try his luck. I merely accompany him as cleric and spiritual advisor – forbidden by my vows, you know?’
The young lawyer didn’t appear the slightest bit interested in Stephen’s vows and, consulting the list before him, asked, ‘Very well then, sir – who is Aiolos?’
Jack breathed an inward sigh of relief; how well he remembered his time with that merchant Mr Aiolos, and all their subsequent troubles with his damned casket. He answered confidently, ‘Aioloth ith the Keeper of the Windth.’
The man goggled at Jack’s strange speech but discerned enough of what he was saying to be able to put a determined tick against the answer.
‘Who is the sun god?’
‘Name me one of the Cyclopes.’
‘Polyphemuth.’ Jack would certainly never forget his encounter with Polyphemus and his damned lighthouse, the scrub.
The list of questions went on and on and Jack answered them all with assurance. He was just beginning to relax when the obnoxious young lawyer said, ‘There are seventy-seven beings connected with the Seas. Can you name me thirty of them?’
Jack stared at him, aghast. It was the one area they had not covered in preparation, as he had been required to know them all since his earliest days at sea and had assured Stephen he was already quite confident of their names. These last days of cramming, however, seemed to have wiped them all from his memory.
‘Umm, Pothidon of courth, err – Thylla and Charybdith?’ (Jack had nearly lost his teeth pronouncing that.) ‘Umm – the Thirenth?’ (He certainly remembered them!)
‘Their individual names?’
Due to the rather trying nature of events when he had encountered the Sirens, Jack had had no notion of staying long enough to get on first name terms with any of them, and he looked fearfully at the youth, at a loss for an answer.
To his amazement, the man grinned and said, ‘That’s alright, it’s a trick question. Only sailors really know them all, and we’ve been told to keep a sharp look out for any trying to sneak in. Pass, Reverend, and the best of luck to you.’ Then he added under his breath, ‘For you will certainly need it with those looks, you poor sod.’
As the chaise rolled on into the grounds of Woolcombe itself, Jack winced and rubbed his thigh, asking, ‘What wath it you called me again, Thephen?’
‘It was John O’Dessy. Dear Jack, you are such an honest fellow I feared you would say your own name out of sheer habit, and it was too much to hope you had thought of a name for yourself. It was the best I could come up with at short notice. By the by, I think you are safe to remove the teeth again for the moment.’ Stephen watched Jack affectionately as he spat out the teeth, deep in thought about his new name. At last, to Stephen’s infinite joy, the penny dropped and the blue eyes sparkled and then disappeared as the florid face before him grew redder still and Jack laughed out loud.
‘O’Dessy – Odyssey! You called me after our journey. Oh what a fellow you are, Stephen!’ And he was off again, tears streaming down his face in mirth. His laughter did not last very long, however, when he saw the state of his cricket pitch: everywhere he looked there were tents and temporary pulpits with clergymen lolling about or practising their sermons, the ground already a mass of rucks and divots. He muttered under his breath about Goddamn heathens with no respect for sacred turf.
‘Never mind it, soul,’ muttered Stephen comfortingly. ‘It cannot be helped. Now, where will we pitch our own stand, towards the pavilion or the other end?’
With so many entrants, the competition took far longer than anyone had anticipated, and Jack was not called to preach that day, nor even the next. He grew fractious with the wait and the anxiety, and because his natural diversions of music, riding and country sports were entirely denied him for the present, he was also bored. Stephen, much as he loved Jack, could not bear to be caged up with him for long in this mood and had taken to wandering the woods for hours at a time, the more so as he had been almost certain he had caught the distinctive flash of a snowy owl, a bird entirely unknown in these parts until then. Jack, with nothing else to do and no taste for reading yet more religious tracts, had closed his eyes for a moment and instantly settled into a deep, profound sleep.
‘The Reverend John O’Dessy? Reverend O’Dessy, it is your turn to preach, sir. Will you step into your pulpit?’
The loud voice cut through both Jack’s sonorous snoring and his dreams of being on his ship, and with a start he woke up. Snatching up his hat from the table beside him, he shoved his hair under as best he could and ran out of the tent straight into his pulpit. Barely pausing to draw breath, he began to speak in his usual hieratic quarterdeck voice:
‘On the British Navy, under the good providence of God, the wealth, safety and strength of the kingdom chiefly depend…’
At this point he paused as two things occurred to him simultaneously, closely followed by a third: the first was that he had begun not on a sermon at all but The Articles of War, which although infinitely more familiar to him were certainly not his intended text; the second was that he had neglected to put in the hideous false teeth, which certainly made his speech clearer but did not help his disguise; and the third and most worrying was that Stephen had his true sermon in his coat pocket and was nowhere to be seen. The lawyers before him frowned and Jack flushed in embarrassment; only Sophie, after an initial start of surprise, remained unperturbed by this strange opening, a tiny hint of a smile at the corner of her mouth. Jack felt his heart constrict as he looked at her standing before him in her widow’s weeds; she was older, a little whiter in the hair and considerably more lined in the face, but she was still his Sophie. Taking inspiration from her, with a slight cough he began to speak again.
‘But as the lady before me knows only too well from her many years of marriage to a naval officer, while the kingdom may depend on the Navy for its safety and strength, the safety and strength of the Navy itself chiefly depends on the love and devotion of the women left behind when their men go off to fight. It is a love that is deeper than the ocean itself, more dependable than the strongest anchor, truer than any compass needle, and it protects and nurtures a man better than the most weatherly of ships. The love of a loyal wife may not be acknowledged as often as it should be, and certainly not as it should be by our sailors who so often spend far more time away from home than their wives would wish, and perhaps are but poor husbands because of it; but it is the thing a right true husband clings to when all other hope has fled. And so my sermon today is on the subject of love, marriage, and a steadfast unwavering devotion…’
It was not the first sermon on the subject the judges had endured, nor even the most eloquent, but it was certainly unique in its approach and was clearly heartfelt. Stephen, hurrying up to the tent fearing he had ruined Jack’s chances by mistaking the time, stopped to marvel at his friend’s words.
When Jack finished speaking he cast a quick glance at Sophie: she stood, apparently serene, with her hands demurely folded before her. Then, looking up directly into Jack’s half-hidden face with a gentle smile, she said quietly, ‘Thank you. Your words mean a great deal to me and I shall treasure them always.’ Then with a small nod she turned away and moved on to the next competitor.
Jack meanwhile retreated to the safety of his tent. ‘By God, Stephen, I would rather face the whole of the French fleet in one action than go through that again,’ he muttered, sinking into a chair and reaching for a glass of wine. ‘I would not be a parson for real, not if you was to pay me my own weight in gold.’
‘You did very well, my dear, far more fitting than anything I could have written for you, and now all we need do is wait for the outcome. By the by, Jack, have you noticed the increase of attendants running about these last few hours, and how some of them have a somewhat distinctive roll to their gait, very like that of your typical sailor?’
Jack had not, but, his curiosity piqued, he went to the door of the tent and looked out searchingly. After a moment or two a burly young man with a weather-beaten face ambled by, carefully carrying a tray of drinks.
‘Why, that is Billy Smithers, maintopman, I should know him anywhere! And there are Williams, Harvey and Crowther, of the foc’sle too. What is going on here?’
‘Which we thought you might need some back up if things turned nasty-like, sir,’ an all too familiar nasal whine intoned behind him. ‘Soused hog’s face?’ They turned to see Killick in an unlikely red wig, an eye patch, and a set of teeth at least as unfortunate as Jack’s own forgotten ones, bearing a loaded tray.
‘How did you get past those fellows with the cudgels and knives at the entrance?’ asked Jack, reaching happily for the nearest dish.
Killick snorted derisively. ‘Went round the back way, didn’t we? Silly buggers forgot all about the path through the woods.’ And with a disdainful sniff he disappeared out of the back of the tent again.
Jack had no time to clear more than two plates of the soused hog’s face and drink off a glass or two of sillery before the sound of the breakfast gong being rung vigorously from the cricket pavilion caught their attention and he and Stephen hurried to join the rest of the competitors before it, his heart thumping. It was not the decision they had been expecting, however: the judges had disagreed as to the winner, could not decide, and as a result a second round involving only the six most favoured competitors would now take place: a test of strength, ability and artistry. Jack was relieved to hear his name being called as one of the six, and was even more so when he understood the nature of the test. Sophie produced Jack’s old sea-going violin, a much-battered and frequently mended article that had grown a little cross-grained over the years and now needed careful handling, and announced shyly that she would marry the man who could string it, tune it and then play it.
The first contestant immediately withdrew, complaining in a somewhat pettish manner that this hadn’t been in the original rules and it was an unfair test; that he had never set himself up as a musician. The second man immediately took up the instrument and valiantly tried to string it, but no sooner had he got one peg tightened than another would loose its hold, and try as he might he could not get all four strings to stay on their pegs together. The next three fared no better and now only Jack remained. Without ceremony he took up the fiddle, holding it just so and tightening the pegs in the required manner. He hummed a G quietly to himself, tuned the instrument as best he could and then tucked it beneath his chin. After a moment’s pause, he began to play the adagio from Hummel’s D Major Sonata. It was a tune perhaps better suited to the piano than the violin, but it was the very first piece he had ever heard Sophie play and he felt sure she would remember.
As it drew to a close, a soft smile crept over her face. ‘I think there can be no doubt now that this is the right man for me.’
‘Wait! Wait! I declare a false result!’ The first named suitor interrupted her in an aggrieved tone. ‘This contest was to be open to clergymen only and if this man is of the cloth then I will eat my hat. I believe he is a sailor – look at his hands, and look, look – he has a pigtail!’ and with that the cleric whipped off Jack’s hat, letting his long clubbed hair escape down his back. ‘Admiral Aubrey, I presume?’ snarled the man.
‘Your servant, sir,’ replied Jack with a courtly bow, before bringing him to the ground with a singularly well-placed blow and turning to address the now restless crowd. ‘Yes, I am Jack Aubrey, the rightful husband of this lady, and being as I am clearly not dead, and having won my wife’s hand fair and square for the second time, I dare any man to try and take her from me now,’ and with that he threw an arm around Sophie’s waist and planted a smacking kiss on her unprotesting lips.
She may not have protested, but there were many others who did, and the uproar from the affronted suitors and the lawyers, all of whom now saw their hefty fees disappearing before their eyes at Jack’s return, was astonishing. It was difficult to determine exactly who threw the first punch in the crowd, but within five minutes the cricket pitch was a seething mass of bodies as clergymen and the now uncovered Surprises, who were always happy for a fight, fell on each other punching, clawing and even biting.
Jack was fighting off two puny but aggressive clerics when he heard a faint anguished cry for help from far away. He banged the two clergymen’s heads together in a determined fashion and looked around for Sophie; she was no longer at his side but instead was being half-dragged half-carried across the grounds by the obnoxious first suitor, who had clearly decided to seize his own chance. The brawling crowd was too thick for Jack to reach them before they gained the waiting carriage, and he looked around desperately for something to shoot or perhaps even throw to stop the man running off with his wife.
A loud crack of thunder and a flash of bright lightning close by, very like an eighteen-pounder going off, made everyone pause, and from somewhere behind him a cricket ball went flying by Jack’s ear with great speed and an extraordinary degree of accuracy. The absconding cleric was struck squarely on the back of the head and instantly fell to the ground, there to be kicked repeatedly by a deeply annoyed Sophie.
‘Cheeky bugger, trying to make off with Mrs A. like that; that showed him alright, though, hor hor.’
‘Bonden? Bless my soul, can that really be you? What on earth…’ Jack Aubrey’s late and sorely missed coxswain, always a demon bowler of the first order, stood casually throwing a cricket ball from hand to hand, a look of profound satisfaction on his face. As he caught Jack’s eye, he grinned and knuckled his forehead.
‘I was sent ahead, sir, being as herself wasn’t quite ready yet and, begging your honour’s pardon, it looked like I arrived in the nick of time.’
Before Jack could ask him to explain, there was another display of thunder and lightning, even more brilliant than before, and a tall and impressively bosomed young woman with bright eyes appeared, still adjusting her gleaming silver helmet and breastplate and settling the startled-looking snowy owl on her shoulder, while demanding to know in stentorian tones what the hell was going on? With delight, Jack realised that ‘herself’ was none other than Athena, goddess of warfare, battle strategy and heroic endeavour, and to his mind there was no more worthy employer of his esteemed coxswain.
‘Good day to you, ma’am. My name is Aubrey and this fighting is to regain my rightful wife who has lately been tricked away from me.’
‘Aubrey? Admiral Jack Aubrey?’ To his surprise the goddess blushed, clasped her hands and fluttered her eyelashes at him, cooing enthusiastically, ‘Ooh, Admiral, oh this is so wonderful, I’ve followed your adventures for so many years, I can’t believe I’ve got to meet you at last, and oh - you are such an inspiration!’ Abruptly Athena seemed to realise that this was perhaps not quite proper Goddess behaviour, and with a cough adjusted her tone once more: ‘Tried to trick your wife away from you, do you say? We cannot have that – who is responsible for this travesty?’
‘If you will forgive the interruption, ma’am,’ said Stephen, doffing his hat politely and bowing to her, ‘I think this cannot be the work of a mere mortal; there have been far too many coincidences, a reverse loop year where one year became seven, and some previously unremarked codicils added to a marriage contract of quite intricate detail and, I would hazard, quite beyond the normal capabilities of the late Mrs Williams.’
‘Williams, did you say?’ Athena frowned. ‘A short, squat woman with a shrewish expression and a voice which goes through you like shattered glass?’
Both Jack and Stephen nodded vehemently.
Looking sour, Athena yelled deafeningly, ‘PERSEPHONE!! Come here AT ONCE and bring that damned Williams woman with you!’
Yet another thunder-crack, and out of purplish-grey billowing clouds another, even younger, goddess appeared looking sulky, with Jack’s late mother-in-law in tow.
‘Persephone, what have you been doing? You know Zeus warned you not to meddle in the lives of the mortals after that last time, and now thanks to you and your latest best friend, this wonderful, brave man has had to come here and fight for his own wife.’ Athena cast an adoring look at Jack. ‘What have you to say for yourself, miss?’
Persephone pouted and folded her arms huffily. ‘It’s not my fault! Fanny said he didn’t love her, couldn’t possibly love her if he kept staying away for so long, didn’t you, Fanny?’ She turned to Mrs Williams, who gibbered indistinctly and tried to hide herself behind Persephone’s skirts.
‘Oh, Seph, how could you be so silly – he’s a sailor, off fighting for King and Country and all that, of course he must be away for long stretches of time, there’s no help for it, you know. And really, look around you: does it really look like Admiral Aubrey doesn’t love his wife? Really?’
The younger goddess cast a covert look around at the chaos of broken heads and bloody noses and her lip stuck out even further. ‘S’not my fault – it was her, she made me do it!’ And turning to Mrs Williams once more she cried, ‘I hate you, Fanny Williams, you are mean and spiteful, and you told me he didn’t love her and he does! We’re not friends anymore, go away!’ And before she could say a word, Mrs Williams had disappeared with a small shriek in a puff of smoke.
‘Right then, good… Now, just you put everything back the way it was, including the date, and we’ll say no more about it; but honestly, Seph, you don’t half pick some strange friends,’ grumbled Athena. She looked at the unhappy clerics, who were beginning to mutter over this new state of affairs, and raised her voice once more. ‘You fellows! While you are in no way to blame for all this, unless you wish to feel my wrath I’d think about getting about my own business quick smart if I were you! And as for you, sir,’ she turned to Jack and simpered a little, ‘Shouldn’t you be with your wife? Although you can tell her from me, if she ever decides she doesn’t like being a sailor’s wife there are plenty more willing to take her place. Oh, and I shouldn’t worry about your cricket pitch, Demeter is Seph’s mother, and while cricket pitches aren’t strictly agriculture I’m sure she’ll stretch a point – she won’t want any publicity about this latest incident, and you are very popular on Olympus, you know.’ Athena smiled winsomely and fluttered her eyelashes again, and then waved Jack away with a small sigh. She became aware that Stephen was staring at her, or rather the bird on her shoulder.
‘That’s a very nice owl; does he get out and about much by himself?’ Stephen asked innocently.
Athena blushed and looked down at her feet guiltily. ‘Not very much, no. Look, Doctor Maturin, before you say anything more, I know I could have stepped in much earlier than this, but it was so much fun watching dear Admiral Aubrey in action. We Deities must have our amusements too, you know, and it’s been so boring lately with this peace with France. You won’t tell him, will you?’ she added anxiously.
Stephen said nothing but continued to look with a marked degree of interest at the snowy owl, who clicked his beak hopefully at him. Athena sighed heavily, meekly lifted the owl from her shoulder and handed him over to Stephen. Gently he stroked the white feathers and then fished in his pocket for a vole, which the owl seized with delight.
‘Such a pity, Jack really goes so very well with my silver armour, far better than any of the others – you will take good care of him, won’t you?’ asked Athena.
‘You called your owl after Admiral Aubrey? Then certainly, ma’am, you may be very sure I will always take very good care of Jack – indeed, both Jacks. Perhaps then you would do me the honour of taking equally good care of Barret Bonden there?’ He cast an affectionate look at the sailor, now practising his spin bowls and expertly avoiding most of the departing clergymen. ‘I am delighted you find him such a useful addition to your staff, but you understand he is only in the nature of a loan? It may be that some time in the future, the very distant future I should hope, the Admiral may wish to have him back. Now good day to you, and thank you for the owl. Come, Jack, let us see what more we can find you that is good to eat. You have the look of an owl who lives by his stomach.’ And with a nod to the goddess, Stephen followed the reunited Aubreys up to the house, crooning to the bird.