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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'Do you remember Malta, when there was a payment of six dollars a head for one-share men?' asked Jack. 'No, of course you do not: you were at the hospital, looking after poor Hopkins's leg. Well, I thought it would answer, with a settled, steady crew of seamen: and the certainly expected it, the bag of silver having been hauled out of the trabacolo's cabin and spilt on deck. But I was wrong: once ashore they kicked up Bob's a-dying to a most shocking extent and then set about the soldiery.'

'Indeed I remember it. My colleagues and I had to treat many of them: contusions, mostly, and some quite important fractures.'

'So you did . . . ' said Jack, shaking his head: then he stopped, listened intently, and ran on deck. Coming back, he wiped the foam and rain from his face with an habitual gesture and said, 'Fore topmast staysail carried away—a damned awkward veering wind and as black as the Devil's arse. But young Wilcox was up there before I reached the fo'c'sle and they were tallying the new sheet aft as though it were broad daylight and the sea as smooth as a pond. But there you are: that is your seaman. He can put up with uncommon dirty weather, endure great hardship and very short commons—a good, steady, courageous, uncomplaining creature under officers he can respect. He will bear all that, and sometimes harsh punishment, shipwreck and scurvy. What he cannot bear is sudden wealth. It goes straight to their heads, and if there is the least possibility they get drunk and disorderly, and desert in droves. In Malta it was not so bad. With the help of the whores their six dollars were soon spent; and on a island there was no chance of deserting. But now the case is altered, and each damn-fool hand with fifty guineas in his pocket would have been blind drunk, poxed and stripped before Sunday, had we not got away: besides—what is it, Killick?'

'Which we shall have to ship washboards athwart the coach door: green seas is coming aft as far as the capstan, and getting worse every minute. I doubt we'll ever get your toasted cheese up dry, without I bring up the spirit-stove and do it here.'

'Who has the deck at the moment?'

'Why, the Master, sir, in course: and he's just sent Mr. Daniel and a couple of strong hands aloft with a spare lantern. Which the top-light came adrift again. And sir—' addressing Stephen—'you mate—I beg his pardon: Dr. Jacob as I ought to say—has had a nasty tumble. Blood all over the gunroom.'

Stephen tried to leap to his feet, but the roll of the ship pressed him back: and when he made a second attempt on the larboard heave it flung him forward with shocking force. Both the captain and the captain's steward had the same notion of Stephen's seamanship, however: between them they held him steady, and Jack, grasping his windward elbow, guided him through the coach—the anteroom, as it were, to the great cabin—and so out on to the deck, where the blast, the utter darkness, think with racing spindrift, rain, and even solid bodies of sea-water, took his breath away, used though he was to the extremities of weather.

'Mr. Woodbine,' called Jack.

'Sir,' replied the Master, just beside the wheel, where the faint glow of the binnacle could be made out by eyes growing accustomed to the darkness.

'How is the top-light coming along?'

'I am afraid we shall have to rouse out the armourer, sir: I doubt Mr. Daniel can fix the bracket without heavy tools.' Then raising his voice he called to the quartermaster stationed to windward, watching the weather-leeches. 'Higgs, hail the top and ask if Mr. Daniel would like the armourer.'

Higgs had an enormous voice and very keen ears: through all the shrieking of the wind in the rigging and its roaring changes he conveyed and received the message. By this time Stephen could make out the small hand-lantern high among the pattern of sails, all as close-hauled as ever they could be, with the frigate plunging westward through the tumultuous seas. He could also see the faint light reflected from the companion-ladder; and toward this he crept, holding on to everything that offered, bowed against the wind and the blinding rain. But with each tentative he took down, the frantic uneven roll grew less—a question, as Jack often told him, of the centre of gravity. Yet a most discreditable scene it was when he opened the larboard door of the bright-lit gunroom. Here were men, accustomed to bloodshed from their childhood, now running about like a parcel of hens, mopping Jacob's arm with their napkins, giving advice, proffering glasses of water, wine, brandy, loosening his neckcloth, undoing his breeches at the waist and the knee. The purser was literally wringing his hands.

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