Excerpt of The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian
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The Hundred Days
The sudden rearmament that followed Napoleon's escape from Elba had done little to thin the ranks of unemployed sea-officers by the early spring of 1815. A man-of-war stripped, dismantled and laid up cannot be manned, equipped and made ready for sea in a matter of weeks; and the best vantage-points in Gibraltar were now crowded with gentlemen on half-pay who with others had gathered to watch the long-expected arrival of Commodore Aubrey's squadron from Madeira, a squadron that would do something to refurnish the great bare stretch of water inside the mole -- an extraordinary nakedness emphasized by the presence of a few hulks, the Royal Sovereign wearing the flag of the Commander-in-Chief, and a couple of lonely seventy-fours: no stream of liberty-boats plying to and fro, almost no appearance of true wartime life.
It was a wonderfully beautiful day, with a slight and varying but reasonably favourable breeze at last: the sun blazed on the various kinds of broom in flower, upon the Rock, upon the cistuses and giant heath, while an uninterrupted stream of migrant birds, honey-buzzards, black kites, all the European vultures, storks both black and white, bee-eaters, hoopoes and countless hirundines flowed across the sky amidst a general indifference; for all eyes were fixed upon the middle distance, where the squadron had come about on the starboard tack. Among the earlier of the watchers, both carrying well-worn telescopes, were two elderly naval lieutenants who could no longer bear the English climate and who found that their £127 15s 0d a year went much farther here. 'The breeze is veering again,' said the first. 'It will be abaft the beam directly.'
'They will be in on this leg, sure.'
'In at last, after all these weary days, poor souls. Briseis kept them hanging about in Funchal until they almost grounded on their own beef-bones. She was always overmasted; and even now I cannot congratulate her on that botched-together bowsprit. Marsham has always oversteeved his bowsprits.'
'Nor on her new foretopmast: their bosun must have died.'
'Now they have steadied, and the line is as clear as can be. Briseis ... Surprise -- she must have been called back into service -- Pomone, wearing Commodore Jack Aubrey's broad pennant -- that must have put poor Wrangle's nose out of joint. Dover ... Ganymede. Dover ... Ganymede. Dover was fitted as a troopship and now she is changing herself back into a frigate as fast as ever she can. What a shambles!'
The breeze came aft and the whole squadron flashed out studdingsails, broad wings set in a thoroughly seamanlike manner: a glorious sight. Yet now the current was against them and in spite of their fine spread of canvas they made but little headway. They were all of them sailing large, of course, all of them getting the last ounce of thrust from the dying breeze with all the skill learnt in more than twenty years of war; a noble spectacle, but one that after a while called for no particular comment, and presently the old lieutenant, John Arrowsmith, two months senior to his friend Thomas Edwards, said, 'When I was young I always used to turn to the births and marriages in the Times as soon as I had done with the promotions and dispatches; but now I turn to the deaths.'
'So do I,' said Edwards.
'... and with this last batch that came with the packet I found several names I knew. The first was Admiral Stranraer, Admiral Lord Stranraer, Captain Koop that was.'
'Oh, indeed? I sailed with him in the old Defender, a West Indies commission where he taught us the spit and polish of those parts. Gloves at all times, whatever the weather; Hessian boots with tassels, on the quarterdeck; up lower yards and cross topgallant yards in under five minutes or watch out for squalls; no reply allowed to any rebuke. If it were not that he is dead, I could tell you many a tale about him in Kingston.'
Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. Copyright © 1998 by Patrick O'Brian. Published by WW Norton and Co. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from Georges Borchardt, Inc at 136 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022. All rights reserved.