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Authors: Patrick O'Brian

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H.M.S. Surprise

BOOK: H.M.S. Surprise
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H.M.S Surprise

Aubrey - Maturin Series



Patrick O'Brian


'But I put it to you, my lord, that prize-money is of essential importance to the Navy. The possibility, however remote, of making a fortune by some brilliant stroke is an unparalleled spur to the diligence, the activity, and the unremitting attention of every man afloat. I am sure that the serving members of the Board will support me in this,' he said, glancing round the table. Several of the uniformed figures looked up, and there was a murmur of agreement: it was not universal, however; some of the civilians had a stuffed and non-committal air, and one or two of the sailors remained staring at the sheets of blotting-paper laid out before them, It was difficult to catch the sense of the meeting, if indeed any distinct current had yet established itself: this was not the usual restricted session of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, but the first omnium gatherum of the new administration, the first since Lord Melville's departure, with several new members, many heads of department and representatives of other boards; they were feeling their way, behaving with politic restraint, holding their fire. It was difficult to sense the atmosphere, but although he knew he did not have the meeting entirely with him, yet he felt no decided opposition - a wavering, rather - and he hoped that by the force of his own conviction he might still carry his point against the tepid unwillingness of the First Lord. 'One or two striking examples of this kind, in the course of a long-protracted war, are enough to stimulate the zeal of the whole fleet throughout years and years of hardship at sea; whereas a denial, on the other hand, must necessarily have a - must necessarily have the contrary effect.' Sir Joseph was a capable, experienced chief of naval intelligence; but he was no orator, particularly before such a large audience; he had not struck upon the golden phrase; the right words had escaped him, and he was conscious of a certain negative, unpersuaded quality in the air.

'I cannot feel that Sir Joseph is quite right in attributing such interested motives to the officers of our service,' remarked Admiral Harte, bending his head obsequiously towards the First Lord. The other service members glanced quickly at him and at one another: Harte was the most eager pursuer of the main chance in the Navy, the most ardent snapper-up of anything that was going, from a Dutch herring-buss to a Breton fishing-boat.

'I am bound by precedent,' said the First Lord, turning a vast glabrous expressionless face from Harte to Sir Joseph. 'There was the case of the Santa Ierigida.

'The Thetis, my lord,' whispered his private secretary.

'The Thetis, I mean. And my legal advisers tell me that this is the appropriate decision. We are bound by Admiralty law: if the prize was made before the declaration of war the proceeds escheat to the Crown. They are droits of the Crown.'

'The strict letter of the law is one thing, my lord, and equity is another. The law is something of which sailors know nothing, but there is no body of men more tenacious of custom nor more alive to equity and natural justice. The position, as I see it, and as they will see it, is this: their Lordships, fully aware of the Spaniards' intention of entering the war, of joining Bonaparte, took time by the forelock. To carry on a war with any effect, Spain needed the treasure shipped from the River Plate; their Lordships therefore ordered it to be intercepted it was essential to act without the loss of a moment, and the disposition of the Channel Fleet was such that - in short, all we were able to send was a squadron consisting of the frigates Indefatigable. Medusa, Amphion and Lively; and they had order to detain the superior Spanish force and to carry it into Plymouth. By remarkable exertions, and, I may say, by the help of a remarkable stroke of intelligence, for which I claim no credit, the squadron reached Cape Santa Maria in time, engaged the Spaniards, sank one and took the others after a determined action, not without grievous loss on our side. They carried out their orders; They deprived the enemy of the sinews of war; and they brought home five million pieces of eight. If now they are to be told that these dollars, these pieces of eight, are, contrary to the custom of the service, to be regarded not as prize-money at all but as droits of the Crown, why then, it will have a most deplorable effect throughout the fleet.'

'But since the action took place before the declaration of war... 'began a civilian.

'What about Belle Poule in 78?' cried Admiral Parr.

'The officers and men of our squadron had nothing to do with any declaration,' said Sir Joseph. 'They were not to meddle with affairs of state, but to execute the orders of the Board. They were fired upon first; then they carried out their duty according to their instructions, at no small cost to themselves and with very great advantage to the country. And if they are to be deprived of their customary reward, if, I say, the Board, under whose orders they acted, is to appropriate this money, then the particular effect upon the officers concerned, who have been led to believe themselves beyond the reach of want, or of anything resembling want, and who have no doubt committed themselves upon this understanding, will be -, he hesitated for the word.

'Lamentable,' said a rear-admiral of the Blue.

'Lamentable. And the general effect upon the service, which will no longer have this splendid example of what zeal and determination can accomplish, will be far wider, far more to be deplored. This is a discretionary matter, my lord - the precedents point in contrary directions, and none has been tried in a court of law - and I put it to you with great earnestness that it would be far better for the Board to use its discretion in the favour of the officers and men concerned. It can be done at no great expense to the country, and the example will repay that expense a hundredfold.'

'Five million pieces of eight,' said Admiral Erskine, longingly, in the midst of a general hesitation. 'Was it indeed as much as that?'

'Who are the officers primarily concerned?' asked the First Lord.

'Captains Sutton, Graham, Collins and Aubrey, my lord,' said the private secretary. 'Here are their files.'

There was a silence while the First Lord ran through the papers, a silence broken only by the squeak of Admiral Erskine's pen converting five million pieces of eight to pounds sterling, dividing the result into its customary prize-shares and coming out with the answer that made him whistle. At the sight of these files Sir Joseph knew the game was up: the new First Lord might know nothing of the Navy, but he was an old parliamentary hand, an astute politician, and there were two names there that were anathema to the present administration. Sutton and Aubrey would throw the damnable weight of party politics into the wavering balance; and the other two captains had no influence of any kind, parliamentary, social or service, to redress it.

'Sutton I know in the House,' said the First Lord, pursing his mouth and scribbling a note. 'And Captain Aubrey... the name is familiar.'

'The son of General Aubrey, my lord,' whispered the secretary.

'Yes, yes. The member for Great Clanger, who made such a furious attack upon Mr Addington. He quoted his son in his speech on corruption, I remember. He often quotes his son. Yes, yes.' He closed the personal files and glanced at the general report. 'Pray, Sir Joseph,' he said after a moment, 'who is this Dr Maturin?'

'He is the gentleman about whom I sent your Lordship a minute last week,' said Sir Joseph. 'A minute in a yellow cover,' added with a very slight emphasis - an emphasis that would have been the equivalent of flinging his ink-well at the First Lord's head in Melville's time.

'Is it usual for medical men to be given temporary post-captain's commissions?' went on the First Lord, missing the emphasis and forgetting the significance of the yellow cover. All the service members looked up quickly, their eyes running from one to the other.

'It was done for Sir Joseph Banks and for Mr Halley, my lord, and I believe, for some other scientific gentlemen. It is an exceptional compliment, but by no means unknown.'

'Oh,' said the First Lord, conscious from something in Sir Joseph's cold and weary gaze that he had made a gaffe. 'So it has nothing to do with this particular case?'

'Nothing whatsoever, my lord. And if I may revert for a moment to Captain Aubrey, I may state without fear of contradiction that the father's views do not represent the son's. Far from it, indeed.' This he said, not from any hope that he could right the position, but by way of drowning the gaffe - of diverting attention from it - and he was not displeased when Admiral Harte, still hoping to curry favour and at the same time to gratify a personal malevolence, said, 'Would it be in order to call upon Sir Joseph to declare a personal interest?'

'No sir, it would not,' cried Admiral Parr, his port-wine face flushing purple. 'A most improper suggestion, by God.' His voice trailed away in a series of coughs and grunts, through which could be heard 'infernal presumption - new member - mere rear-admiral - little shit.'

'If Admiral Harte means to imply that I am in any way concerned with Captain Aubrey's personal welfare,' said Sir Joseph with an icy look, 'he is mistaken. I have never met the gentleman. The good of the service is my only aim.'

Harte was shocked by the reception of what he had thought rather a clever remark, and he instantly pulled in his horns - horns that had been planted, among a grove of others, by the Captain Aubrey in question. He confounded himself in apologies - he had not meant, he had not wished to imply, what he had really intended - not the least aspersion on the most honourable gentleman.

The First Lord, somewhat disgusted, clapped his hand on the table and said, 'But in any event, I cannot agree that five million dollars is a trifling expense to the country; and as I have already said, our legal advisers assure me that this must be considered as droits of the Crown. Much as I personally should like to fall in with Sir Joseph's in many ways excellent and convincing suggestion, I fear we are bound by precedent. It is a matter of principle. I say it with infinite regret, Sir Joseph, being aware that this expedition, this brilliantly successful expedition, was under your aegis; and no one could wish more wealth and prosperity to the gentlemen of the Navy than myself. But our hands are tied, alas. However, let us console ourselves with the thought that there will be a considerable sum left over to be divided: nothing in the nature of millions, of course, but a considerable sum, oh yes. Yes. And with that comfortable thought, gentlemen, I believe we must now turn our attention..

They turned it to the technical questions of impressment, tenders and guardships, matters outside Sir Joseph's province, and he leant back in his chair, watching the speakers, assessing their abilities. Poor, on the whole; and the new First Lord was a fool, a mere politician. Sir Joseph had served under Chatham, Spencer, St Vincent and Melville, and this man made a pitiful figure beside them: they had had their failings, particularly Chatham, but not one would so have missed the point - the whole expense in this case would have been borne by the Spaniards; it would have been the Spaniards who provided the Royal Navy with the splendid example of four youngish post-captains caught in a great shower, a downpour, of gold - the money would not have left the country. Naval fortunes were not so common; and the fortunes there were had nearly all been amassed by admirals in lucrative commands, taking their flag-share for innumerable captures in which they personally took no part whatsoever. The captains who fought the ships - those were the men to encourage. Perhaps he had not made his point as clearly or as forcibly as he should have done: he was not in form after a sleepless night with seven reports from Boulogne to digest. But in any case, no other First Lord except perhaps St Vincent would have made the question turn on party politics. And quite certainly not a single one of them would have blurted out the name of a secret agent.

Both Lord Melville (a man who really understood intelligence - a splendid First Lord) and Sir Joseph were much attached to Dr Maturin, their adviser on Spanish and especially Catalan affairs, a most uncommon, wholly disinterested agent, brave, painstaking, utterly reliable and ideally qualified, who had never accepted the slightest reward for his services - and such services! It was he who had brought them the intelligence that had allowed them to deliver this crippling blow. Sir Joseph and Lord Melville had devised the temporary commission as a means of obliging him to accept a fortune, supplied by the enemy; and now his name had been brayed out in public - not even in the comparative privacy of the Board, but in a far more miscellaneous gathering - with the question openly directed at the chief of naval intelligence. It was unqualifiable. To rely on the discretion of these sailors whose only notion of dealing with an enemy as cunning as Bonaparte was to blow him out of the water, was unqualifiable. To say nothing of the civilians, the talkative politicians, whose nearest approach to danger was a telescope on Dover cliffs, where they could look at Bonaparte's invasion army, two hundred thousand strong, camped on the other side of the water. He looked at the faces round the long table; they were growing heated about the relative jurisdictions of the impress service proper and the gangs from the ships - admiral called to admiral in voices that could be heard in Whitehall, and the First Lord seemed to have no control of the meeting whatsoever. Sir Joseph took comfort from this - the gaffe might be forgotten. 'But still,' he said to himself, drawing the metamorphoses of a red admiral, egg, caterpillar, chrysalis and imago on his pad, 'what shall I say to him when we meet? What kind of face can I put on it, when I see him?'

In Whitehall a grey drizzle wept down upon the Admiralty, but in Sussex the air was dry - dry and perfectly still. The smoke rose from the chimney of the small drawing-room at Mapes Court in a tall, unwavering plume, a hundred feet before its head drifted away in a blue mist to lie in the hollows of the downs behind the house. The leaves were hanging yet, but only just, and from time to time the bright yellow rounds on the tree outside the window dropped of themselves, twirling in their slow fall to join the golden carpet at its foot, and in the silence the whispering impact of each leaf could be heard - a silence as peaceful as an easy death.

BOOK: H.M.S. Surprise
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