Excerpt from Blue At The Mizzen by Patrick O'Brian, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Blue At The Mizzen

by Patrick O'Brian

Blue At The Mizzen
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  • First Published:
    Oct 1999, 288 pages
    Sep 2000, 272 pages

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Chapter One

The Surprise, lying well out in the channel with Gibraltar half a mile away on her starboard quarter, lying at a single anchor with her head to the freshening north-west breeze, piped all hans at four bells in the afternoon watch; and at the cheerful sound her tender Ringle, detached once more on a private errand by Lord Keith, cheered with the utmost good will, while the Suprises turned out with a wonderful readiness, laughing, beaming and thumping one another on the back in spite of a strong promise of rain and a heavy sea running already. Many had put on their best clothes—embroidered waistcoats, and silk Barcelona handkerchiefs around their necks—for the Surprises and their captain, Jack Aubrey, had taken a very elegant prize indeed, a Moorish galley laden with gold, no less—a galley that had fired on Surprise first, thus qualifying herself as a pirate, so that the prize-court, sitting at the pressing request of Captain Aubrey's friend Admiral Lord Keith, had condemned her out of had: a perfectly lawful prize, to be shared according to the usage of the sea, or more exactly according to the Prize Law of 1808.

And now they were all on deck, radiating joy and facing aft on the larboard side of the quarterdeck in the usual disorderly naval heap, gazing at their captain, his officers, the purser and the clerk, ranged athwartships and facing forward on either side of some charming barrels. These had been brought aboard by a guard of Marines, heavily sealed: but now their heads had been taken off (though carefully numbered and preserved by the cooper) and it was apparent that their bodies were filled with coin. The gold was somewhat unorthodox, it having been captured in small uneven ingots which the Gibraltar goldsmiths had cast into smooth shining disks each marked 130g Troy: on hundred and thirty grains Troy weight: but the silver and copper were in their usual homely forms.

The echo of the fourth bell and the cheering died: the clerk, catching his captain's nod, called 'John Anderson'. Since no one else aboard Surprise in this commission had ever come earlier in the alphabet it was no Surprise to John Anderson or his shipmates; and although he was ordinarily shy and awkward he now stepped aft quite happily to the capstan-head: taking off his hat, he touched his forelock and cried, 'John Anderson, sir if you please: ordinary, larboard watch, afterguard.' The clerk followed this conscientiously in the book though he knew it all by heard; said, 'Very well: one hundred and fifty-seventh part of a half-share: hold out your hat.' And plunging his right hand into the barrel of gold he drew out first one handful of disks and counted them into the hat, 'One, two . . . ten.' Plunged again, counted out seven more, said 'Wait a minute' to Anderson and to his little dark shrewish assistant at the other two barrels, 'Seventeen and fourpence.' Then to Anderson again, 'That makes seventeen pound, seventeen shillings and fourpence; and here is your witnessed paper asking for three hundred and sixty-five pound to be remitted to Mrs. Anderson. Are you content?'

'Oh dearie me, yes,' said Anderson, laughing. 'Oh yes, sir, quite content.'

Then sign here,' said the clerk: but seeing Anderson's uneasy look, he murmured, 'Well, just make your mark in the bottom corner.'

And so it went, right through the list: there were a few men with no dependents of any kind, and they walked off with the entire hundred and fifty-seventh part of half the splendid prize; but most over thirty had yielded to the representations of their captain and divisional officers to send at least some money home; and all eagerly agreed with the clerk's reckoning. At one time Stephen Maturin, the frigate's surgeon, had been calculating the degree of literacy aboard; but melancholy, no doubt helped by the increasing wind and the spindrift, had welled up and he lost count among the names beginning with N. 'How I do wish,' he murmured to Jack in a moment's pause, 'that William and his Ringles might have been here.'

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