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Excerpt from The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Hundred Days

by Patrick O'Brian

The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian X
The Hundred Days by Patrick O'Brian
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  • First Published:
    Oct 1998, 280 pages

    Oct 1999, 280 pages


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The side-boys offered him the sumptuous man-ropes, and following the reefer on duty he ran down into his barge. All the bargemen knew him perfectly well -- they had been shipmates in many a commission, and two of them, Joe Plaice and Davies, had served in his first command, the Sophie; but neither they nor Bonden, his coxswain, gave the least sign of recognition as he settled in the stern-sheets, shifting his sword to give the midshipman more room. They sat there in their formal bargeman's rig -- broad-brimmed white sennit hat with ribbons, white shirts, black silk Barcelona handkerchiefs tied round their necks, snowy duck trousers -- looking solemn: they were part of a ceremony, and levity, winking, whispering, smiling, had no place in it. Bonden shoved off, said 'Give way', and with exact timing, rowing dry with long grave strokes, they pulled the barge across to the starboard accommodation-ladder of the flagship, where an even more impressive ceremony took place. Jack, having been piped aboard, saluted the quarterdeck, shook hands with the ship's captain and the master of the fleet, while the Royal Marines -- scarlet perfection under a brilliant sun -- presented arms with a rhythmic clash and stamp.

A master's mate led the Pomone's youngster away, and Captain Buchan, who commanded the Royal Sovereign, ushered Jack Aubrey below, to the Admiral's splendid quarters: but rather than the very large, grim and hoary Commander-in-Chief, there rose a diaphanous cloud of blue tulle from the locker against the screen-bulkhead -- tulle that enveloped a particularly tall and elegant woman, very good-looking but even more remarkable for her fine carriage and amiable expression. 'Well, dearest Jack,' she said, they having kissed, 'how very happy I am to see you wearing a broad pennant. It was a damned near-run thing that you were not out of reach, half-way to Tierra del Fuego in a mere hydrographical tub, a hired vessel. But how we ever came to miss you on Common Hard I shall never understand -- never, though I have gone over it again and again. True, Keith was in a great taking about the naval estimates, and I was turning some obscure lines of Ennius in my head without being able to make any sense of them frontwards or backwards; but even so ...'

'Nor shall I ever understand how I came to be such an oaf as to walk in here, ask you how you did, and sit down by your side without the slightest word of congratulations on being a viscountess: yet it had been in my head all the way across. Give you joy with all my heart, dear Queenie,' he said, kissing her again; and they sat there very companionably on the broad cushioned locker. Jack was taller than Queenie and far more than twice as heavy; and having been in the wars for a great while and much battered, he now looked older. He was in fact seven years her junior, and there had been a time when he was a very little boy whose ears she boxed for impertinence, uncleanliness and greed, and whose frequent nightmares she would soothe by taking him into her bed.

'By the way,' said Jack, 'does the Admiral prefer to be addressed as Lord Viscount Keith like Nelson in his time or just as plain Lord K?'

'Oh, just plain Lord, I think. The other thing is formal court usage, to be sure, and I know that dear Nelson loved it; but I think it has died out among ordinary people. Anyway he does not give a hoot for such things, you know. He values his flag extremely, of course, and I dare say he would like the Garter; but the Keiths of Elphinstone go back to the night of time -- they are earl marischals of Scotland, and would not call Moses cousin.'

They sat smiling at one another. An odd pair: handsome creatures both, but they might have been of the same sex or neither. Nor was it a brother and sister connection, with all the possibilities of jealousy and competition so often found therein, but a steady uncomplicated friendship and a pleasure in one another's company. Certainly, when Jack was scarcely breeched and Queenie took care of him after his mother's death, she had been somewhat authoritarian, insisting on due modesty and decent eating; but that was long ago, and for a great while now they had been perfectly well together.

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.

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