© 2002 E. Thomas Behr
In grateful appreciation for the extraordinary gift of Patrick O’Brian’s novels.
A Note to the Reader
This story presents moments from what would be a longer novel, based, in part, on an actual American mission against the Barbary Pirates in 1815. I have taken a few obvious historical and biographical liberties. Robert Saunders Dundas, the 2nd Viscount Melville, would have been First Lord of the Admiralty in this time, not Aubrey’s friend Heneage Dundas. The American expedition in the Mediterranean in June 1815 would have happened roughly the same time Napoleon was fleeing Waterloo, not, as I have made it, some months after.
I am grateful for the help I received from Captain Daniel Moreland of the tall ship Picton Castle and Byron Fox on square ship sailing and handling, and from Dr. Edward Jones of the New York Hospital for Special Surgery for suggesting the details of Stephen Maturin’s rescue. Any errors, of course, are my own. Joesph Borlo, Peter, JoAnn and Mary Behr provided encouragement and helpful criticism as this manuscript went through its various revisions.
As for my use of O’Brian’s characters, I know of no better way to honor him. Please think of me not as a pirate, but rather a jobbing-captain with another man’s ship in my hands, that I have had the brief pleasure to sail with loving care.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Whitehall, London 1815
“I tell you, Melville, this is entirely out of the question. His Majesty’s Government could not, nay, it must not support such an action, even if it were merited by the reported facts, which, by the way, I discredit utterly.”
Heneage Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, was caught on a lee shore, far more dangerous than any he had escaped during the long wars with France. His enemies now, arrayed this morning in the Cabinet Chamber at Whitehall, were the new government under Castlereagh, come to power with Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.
Unlike his predecessors in that office, Dundas ruled over a sadly diminished navy. Where England had once boasted of close to 900 ships and over 140,000 officers and men, its proud fleet was now being reduced to a handful of ships on active duty. The rest lay in ordinary, or were being broken up as fast as the Navy Yards could come to their destruction. Now England sought treaties with its enemies instead of demanding surrender.
Mindful of the suspicion plainly visible in the faces and postures of the other cabinet members, Dundas decided to make his case as simply and strongly as possible from the outset: “I speak, my Lords, under correction, and without intending to give the least offense, but the facts, if you will permit me, are these: a British vessel was brazenly attacked by Algerine pirates in ships supplied and commanded by the Spanish government, and the gentleman I have spoken of in my report was taken prisoner.”
He might as well have thrown a flaming torch into a ship’s magazine, so quick and ferocious was Lord Liverpool’s response. “This ‘gentleman’ to whom you allude, is he not a notorious and attainted traitor to his rightful ruler and our ally, the King of Spain? And was he not implicated in that damned uprising in Catalonia, which, God be praised, was quelled with the severity it deserved? And this same man, as I understand it, was part of the villainous mischief in Ireland in 1797, and busy in all manner of seditious plots in the Spanish Colonies in the last war. Really Sir, you amaze me. I wonder at your advocacy of such a cause. I wonder at it.”
“With all respect, I must point out Sir, that he is a British subject, as well. He served us, in the last war, as my report makes clear, bravely and with distinction, I might add, as the sworn statement of Sir Joseph…”
“Sir Joseph Blaine is not a part of this government, Melville, as you well know.” Now it was Lord Peel’s turn, and Dundas was quite taken aback by the contempt in the older man’s tone, all the more vicious for the feigned civility in which it was cloaked. “This ‘gentleman,’ as you describe him, was a common spy, hired for a purpose, and paid well, I have no doubt of it, for his services.”
Dundas was at a stand, sure of his purpose, but sailing in strange waters indeed, dealing with politicians who could ruin him with a word. “I mean no affront, Lord Peel,” he protested, “but is it not possible that you are mistaken? He never took a penny for his services! A patriot, Sir, not a common spy!”
“Well there you are, Melville, my point exactly.” This from Lord Castlereagh, arguably the most powerful man now in England, and, with Metternich and Talleyrand, one of the self-proclaimed architects of the new Europe. “The man was a patriot, you say? I think we have had quite enough of patriotisme, quite enough, by far, these twenty five years and past. How many men have perished putting down this last patriote, I ask you? God’s death, man, you see how it is with us. Government is eight million pounds in debt, the throne is uncertain, armies of unemployed soldiers and sailors riot in every major town in England, Luddites burn our manufactures, and the countryside is afire with the disaffected poor, crying out against enclosures. We need no more patriotes here, I think.
“If Maturin were in an Algerine prison, then let him stay there. But we have the sworn word of His Majesty’s ally, the new Dey of Algiers, that he died in the lamentable attack, which, I must say, the Algerines have apologized for, as they should, and compensated us handsomely, I might add. The ship’s officers in question were tried, found guilty, and dealt with according to Algerine law. Crucified I believe.”
“Those were prisoners, Sir, not the ship’s officers! I have it on the testimony of Dr. Jacobs who went to Algiers…”
Liverpool returned to the attack. “Jacobs, indeed. Another of Blaine’s creatures. Upon my word, this is really impossible, Melville. An Irish croppy who is also a fanatic for Catalonian independence, and a particular friend of that damned stock-jobbing, bottomless Whig, Aubrey? And this man’s character is sworn to by a Jew who is at the same time very well with the Mahometans? And what, I pray, is next? A Hottentot who quotes Cicero and Virgil and tells fortunes? Madame Cutpurse, the notorious witch of Eastcheap? I tell you what, Melville. What you need is the fat woman with two heads and the little boy with the enormous thing, and you could open a booth at Smithfield Fair and astound the credulous for a penny. This may be all very well in the Admiralty, but it don’t serve with us!”
“You are asking the Royal Navy to countenance piracy, Sir!”
Liverpool glared at him with eyes as cold and black as cannon mouths. “No Sir. I am telling the Royal Navy to countenance what it must, by God, countenance – or choke on its own damned gall. You do not set national policy in the Admiralty, I think!
The room exploded in choleric, apoplectic outrage. “Hear him! Hear him! This is quite ridiculous.” “The Navy make policy, hey? What is next, fishwives reforming the Poor Laws? Canting Methodies named Archbishops of the Church of England?” “Surely the Royal Navy still understands the meaning of orders!”
As the din grew to a crescendo, Castlereagh rose to establish order. “Gentlemen, gentlemen! We waste both breath and time in this matter. Dundas, I am not insensitive to your loyalty to old shipmates, but there is nothing to be done here. The man is dead, and the issue is closed.”
“But my Lord Castlereagh, I am sure that he lives still! The survivors of Ringle saw him carried aboard Mashuda unwounded and struggling against his captors!”
“Then you had better pray that I am right and you are wrong, Dundas, for if Stephen Maturin still lives and is in the hands of the Dey of Algiers, why he will wish for death long before it comes to him. Gentlemen, this meeting is concluded.”
“I fear I have made a sad botch of it all, Sir Joseph,” said Dundas, now taking supper with the former head of Naval Intelligence, for whom Stephen Maturin had risked his wealth and safety, accomplishing miracles as England’s most illustrious spy against Napoleon. “I went in determined to talk ‘em fair – but what an obsequious, self-inflated set of grass-combing pragmatical bastards it is! Right firking buggers, the lot of them! They have dispensed with Maturin as easy as kiss your hand. Kiss my arse, I should say!”
“Well, Dundas, I am sure you did what you could. We live in new times; there are wheels within wheels in this Government. And in all respects they are Castlereagh’s minions – like hounds who grow to love the man that brings them game. They would follow his halloo into the nastiest ditch and then lick the stink from his boots for the pleasure of it. But what of poor Maturin and Jack Aubrey? May we trust Dr. Jacob’s report at all?”
“It is confirmed in its salient points by both William Reade, who plucked Maturin off the beach at the Llobregat River when the Catalonians were crushed by the Spanish and French, and by Lord Keith himself. Reade was heroic, I tell you. The Ringle was intercepted by the Algerines in Mashuda, 44 and Estedio, 22, one day out of Gibraltar. Reade fought Estedio to a standstill but was quite over-gunned by Mashuda. It was as if they had seen his orders.”
“Balmouth commanded then in Gibraltar?” asked Blaine. ‘Dear, dear,’ he reflected. ‘An old, jealous, irascible man and a young, saucy wife, too fond of Aubrey by half, if the rumors we hear are true. Jack Aubrey still at the Sganarelle game at his age? And this, I hear, was no Cocu imaginaire. One would have thought Molly Harte would have taught him more care.’
“Balmouth would, of course, have been briefed on Aubrey’s plans in detail,” he continued. “I shouldn’t doubt but that the Dons and Algerines knew all.”
“Why then there’s the devil to pay and no pitch hot,” cried Dundas. “Lord Keith dispatched the fastest hired vessel he could find to rendezvous with Aubrey when Reade limped back into Gibraltar. It was the talk of the port – cried out in every alehouse. Jack will sail right into their trap.”
“And should he, by a miracle, succeed in rescuing Maturin, what then?” responded Blaine. “Algiers is, a disgrace to admit it, our ally. That makes his action piracy. And with this government, should he ever return to England, it is a hempen rope and Captain Kidd’s Jig to be danced at the end of Execution Dock, I fear.”
Dawn found Surprise 200 miles off the northern coast of Spain, a fresh westerly breeze two points on the starboard quarter driving her at close to 13 knots through the foaming crests of a following sea. The starboard watch had finished holystoning the deck, washing and flogging it dry with extra care and extra speed, and were enjoying a few rare moments of relaxation before the change of the watch.
An older style, French-built 28-gun frigate, Surprise had been destined for the scrap yard until Maturin bought her out of service and refitted her as a private armed vessel. Aubrey, now temporarily detached from the Navy for a political voyage to Chile, had sailed on her, off and on, since his earliest days as a midshipman, and knew well how to coax every bit of speed from her.
John Read, Dick Murdock, and Peter Eddy, all old Surprises, sat between two of the forward larboard guns, out of sight of the quarterdeck. The smell of breakfast, the ritual, barely-edible burgoo and bitter Scotch coffee, wafted up from the Charley Noble just aft of the foremast.
“The barky loves a quartering breeze,” Read acknowledged. They could hear the reassuring hum of the rigging in tune with the steady murmur of the sea. “She’s never sailed better.”
“Aye, cony, or been asked to,” answered Murdock. “We’ve been cracking on like smoke and oakum since we left Bermuda. Joe Plaice says he heard the officers say we’ve beaten Nelson’s record when he chased Villynoof back to Trafalgar. Thirty days it is.” He stood up, looked quickly at the quarterdeck, then loosed an expert stream of tobacco juice through the fore chains. “What d’ye think the weather will be?”
Eddy glanced aloft at the huge spread of canvas brightening in the morning sunrise, and the mare’s tails of clouds above them, and then astern at the gray clouds now visible in the west. “Rough and squally, I should say, same as with the Captain since we left to fetch the Doctor home.”
“I was with the Captain on the Lively when we saved the Doctor from the Frogs in ’03,” answered Read. Cross as a bear he was then, too. Old Goldilocks ain’t no flogging captain, as some as might be named, but coming athwart his hawse in this mood could cost a man his skin.”
Jack Aubrey lay in his cot, wide-awake, after yet another restless night’s sleep. For what seemed like the hundredth time he looked at the compass above his cot to check the ship’s heading, and noted the familiar finely tuned creak and surge of his ship working easily with wind and water. Once again he thought of going on deck, just for something to do, and once again, put the thought away. At six bells it would be Tom Pulling’s con. Since his days as a gangly lieutenant, Tom had served with Jack, off and on these fifteen years past. Now a Royal Navy captain facing a life on the beach at half-pay, with a wife and family he scarcely knew, he had eagerly volunteered for this voyage. As a friend, Tom would accept Jack’s intrusion; as an officer, he would find it awkward.
Jack knew he had driven both the ship and its men mercilessly for weeks, but no harder than he had driven himself. He had wrestled with the fastest course back to Gibraltar. The straightest route, almost due east, would have put him at risk of fighting constantly shifting winds, or worse, being becalmed for days at a time, as Surprise had been when she chased Spartan back to the Azores. The bolder move was to veer northeast with the Gulf Stream, to catch the surer prevailing westerlies above Latitude 40º, and then run down on a steady starboard tack to the coast of Spain. The days sailing northeast, away from his destination, had been the hardest. Was Stephen still alive, or had he died in agony, or worse, been tortured beyond sanity? Jack could not put from his mind images of Stephen impaled, each screaming spasm to avoid the pain only driving the cruel pointed shaft deeper in his entrails.
Jack’s attention was pulled out of its grim subject by a slight sound outside his cabin door, different from the usual working of the ship, but familiar, even anticipated. A shuffling of feet and a low, whining voice, in querulous debate with itself. “Is His Lordship asleep, and not to be wakened, or awake and poor Killick’s ears to be boxed again? And because why? Because coffee is late, or too cold for all the waiting.”
“Damn your eyes, Preserved Killick you poxy dog!” Jack cried out. “If you have coffee, light it along. You’ve already managed to ruin my sleep again!” His steward entered, his normal sour look of eternal complaint only slightly softened by his sense of Jack’s mood.
“Which there is also wittles – not that someone eats more than wouldn’t keep a bird alive.”
“Not another word, Killick, you mumping villain, or I’ll have the skin flayed off you and roll you in salt!” roared Jack. He was warming to his task when the lookout’s hail brought him to his feet.
“Below on deck. D’ye hear on deck there? Sail off the larboard quarter!”
Accompanied by Tom Pullings, Jack breathlessly scaled to the mizzen top, coffee all forgotten, their glasses trained on a strange ship, hull down on the same tack, four points to windward at a distance of perhaps twenty miles, her sails now appearing, now disappearing in the low gray clouds to westward.
“What do you make of her, Sir?” asked Pullings.
“Not a Frenchman, nor one of ours, to be sure. With the war’s end and this disgraceful peace with the Barbary Pirates, Sir James Hillyar – did I tell you Keith says Jimmy Hillyar is replacing Balmouth in Gibraltar? – Hillyar has that old tub Courageux 74 for his flag and precious little else. Who would have thought we’d sail to Bermuda and back with never a sight of a British cruiser?
“She looks big. An American, perhaps?
“Perhaps, Tom. I never thought to say this, but I would welcome it heartily, now. Well, we will hold course and keep an eye on her. So long as this breeze holds, I cannot think she can do us mischief.”
Eight hours of steady sailing later, the stranger, now quite visible, had closed to 10 miles. Jack, standing on the port mizzen chains, had not needed his come-up glass to track how the stranger gained on Surprise.
“See how she sails, Tom,” Jack remarked to Pullings. “All our laundry is aloft and she shows no more than royals. I think our friend here is no American. I know their Constitution all too well; I was with poor Lambert when the Java was taken. And I had plenty of opportunity while a prisoner in Boston to study the Congress, and, of course, we have their President and Chesapeake. This is none of those ships. I have heard of their posting Bainbridge to the Med in a new 44, Java – cheeky, if you ask me – but not for some months hence. No, from what Keith has written, we must expect Mashuda, with her 44 twenty-four pounders to our twelves. A tough nut.”
“She looks trim for an Algerine,” Pullings offered.
“Yes, she does,” Jack acknowledged. “Well, Keith says she’s commanded by the Dons, who sold her to the Algerines. They have no notion of sailing a ship like this, but a Spanish captain and officers would know how to manage her shipshape.
As the afternoon wore on, the stranger kept her distance. ‘She could come up to us at her pleasure. And our displeasure,’ Jack reflected to himself, his mind already forming a plan for what he assumed to be an inevitable battle.
Jack looked again at the dark, squally weather that had overtaken both ships from the west. Small black clouds now scudded under a low, dirty gray sky. After so many years at sea, Jack no longer studied the skies and ocean, rather, he was simply at one with the changing weather, winds and currents, as a skilled hunter knows where his unseen prey is by the least change in the sounds and sights of the forest. Maturin had once pointed out small land birds taking roost as the barometer dropped, sensing and reacting to the heavier air that made flying difficult. While he checked the glass, of course, Jack actually felt the steady drop in pressure, signaling an oncoming storm, in the same way − not so much deliberate thought as awareness.
“I tell you what, Tom,” said Jack, after several minutes pause. “An early bird is worth two in the bush, as the saying is. If she stays her current course and distance, at nightfall we may expect the wind to shift to the southwest for a bit. When it grows dark, we will run up to the northeast, praying for as black a night as ever there may be, and, touching wood of course, a bit of fog would suit as well.
“If the Mashuda draws ahead of us on her old course, we will have the weather gauge of her at morning, and, I shouldn’t doubt, a nor’ westerly breeze. Then let her come to us. Barring all accidents, we may then damage her rigging to good purpose before she can bring her broadside to bear. And send the Gunner and Carpenter to me. We may have something in our stores that could prove useful.” ‘A good enough plan,’ Jack thought, ‘but if ever the winds back again to the south in the morning, we are dished.’
Just before dusk, while both ships were still in sight of each other in the rapidly worsening weather, Jack had reduced sail to reefed topsails and courses, and held his breath until Mashuda sensibly obliged by doing the same. Now the Surprise ran through the steady rain, still on the same tack. They had not seen Mashuda for an hour or more. ‘She is still back there,’ thought Jack, wishing he had more clear a sense of her captain’s character. ‘In any case, she knows where we are headed, and can wait for us as she wishes.’
Almost as if bidden, the winds began to back rapidly to the south, shivering the weather edges of the topsails and courses. ‘It is now, or not at all,’ thought Jack. “Helm hard a starboard! Let her run off north by east one quarter east and steady!” he called out to the quartermaster at the wheel. “Loosen sheets, take in tacks and braces, and square the yards!” Surprise came smoothly around and began running before the wind.
‘How long to hold this course?’ Jack wondered. ‘I must gain the weather gauge when the wind shifts again in a few hours − if it shifts at all − but keep Mashuda down wind and in striking distance. And pray she does not smoke what we are about or catch sight of us as she passes.’
After an interminable wait, with all eyes aboard ship straining into the fog and warm misty rain abaft, hoping to see no sign of Mashuda, he gave the order to bring the Surprise back to her original course. “Helm to port, Mr. Fox, if you please. Steer southeast. Brace up and fill the yards.”
Another long, sleepless night passed, with the storm blowing through in a final surge of heavy squalls. Jack’s thoughts turned to the rescue of Maturin from the French in Part Mahon, so many years ago. ‘Stephen told me, that as he drifted in and out of the anguish of his torture, he would dream of me bursting through the door to save him. And so I did, and he struggled between dream and reality until the pain of loosening his bonds let him know it was no dream. If he lives, I wonder if he still dreams of rescue? And if we fail tomorrow, when then of his dream? I have known Stephen to sink so deeply into despair that one feared he might never come back into the world. Now, since Diana’s death, he has been driven only by his loathing for Napoleon. With the enemy finally vanquished, what care will he have for living?’
At first light, Surprise was now again on a starboard tack, Mashuda clearly visible eight miles away, now two points off the starboard bow. Both ships were now sailing easy, under plain sail, Mashuda with her royals and topgallants reefed. Jack noticed that Mashuda appeared not to take notice of their new position, but continued on her course. ‘She could be leading us into a trap,’ he wondered, ‘but given her superior strength, why should she need to?’
“You may pipe the hands to breakfast, Tom, then beat to quarters.” An hour later, with the two ships still sailing broad on the starboard tack and Surprise cleared for action, Jack addressed his crew – for the most part, old hands of many voyages whom he knew well and trusted completely.
“Shipmates, you see how it stands. I cannot but think we have caught a real tartar here, that villainous Algerine, Mashuda, who served out the Ringle so cruelly. I mean to take the fight to her, but today we fire like Frenchmen – aim high to dismast her. She must wear and tack to come to us, and if we do not do mischief to her spars and rigging, then shame upon us all. And with Mr. Connolly’s fine work on the stern, there, perhaps we may yet have a Surprise for her. Ha! Ha!”
Amidst the general laughter that followed what he considered a fine statement – one of his best, really − Jack noted with pleasure the calm purposefulness of the crew. They were good men, hardened to battle and not shy of long odds. Among the gun captains were shipmates who had sunk the Waakzaamheid off Cape Town, beaten the heavier Torgud in the Mediterranean, and mauled a French ‘74 in the Indian Ocean. There were even a few old Sophies from Jack’s first command when his 14-gun ship had taken the Cacafuego, 32.
“Two points to windward, Tom, and nothing off,” cried Jack. “We must keep the weather gage at all odds. And the blue Ensign, if you please.” ‘It ain’t quite proper,’ Jack considered, ‘but I don’t think Jimmy Hillyar would object.’
“Daniels,” he called, “light aloft there to the jacks with a good glass and see if you can spy her motions on deck!” ‘The next hour will tell all,’ thought Jack. ‘We must shoot as well as ever we have done, and even then, it is at odds. We cannot think to stand up to her size and weight of metal.’
The minutes passed as the two ships closed within gun range, the stranger bearing steady ESE and the Surprise holding position to rake her if she turned to them. “Deck there!” shouted out Daniels, “colors and signals! And they have stood down from their guns!” Aboard the Surprise, they watched the American flag break out astern with a commodore’s long pennant at the mainmast. “Welcome, Surprise, is their signal,” Daniels called, “and they are showing the Surprise’s old private number!”
“What do you make of it?” asked Pulling, like Jack, straining to see the activity on the stranger’s deck.
“A damned ruse – if it is the Mashuda.”
“Sir,” cried Daniels. “They have no relief chains on their yards nor boarding netting raised.” Aubrey followed his gaze up into the stranger’s rigging. Sure enough, the chains that should have been attached to the yards to keep them from crashing to the deck if the rigging were cut by gunfire were not in place.
“Avast there, gun captains!” Jack cried out suddenly and decisively. “Stand by your guns, but no shot is to be fired on peril of your life! I repeat, do not fire, or you will answer for it! Daniels! Her decks, there. Are those men black or white?”
“Sir?” came the reply.
“Are they dark faces – Moors?”
“They are white, sir. I see white faces on the spar and quarterdecks! And navy blue uniforms.”
At that moment, Aubrey saw the stranger luff her foresails in the kind of smooth, apparently unhurried speed that only superbly trained crews could achieve. “She’s wearing, Sir,” came the hail from the masthead, announcing what all could see. The stranger was swinging gracefully around to so her vulnerable stern faced the Surprise. ‘Like a mastiff offering herself to a cocker spaniel,’ thought Jack. ‘But that is one bitch I would not wish to mount.’
“Americans, then,” said Pullings. “No Algerines, nor Dons neither, handle a ship like that,” he continued, as the Surprise quickly closed the distance. Jack watched, some large part of his heart still in his throat, as the now huge frigate hauled her wind to let the Surprise, draw up, a cable length away, furl her sails and lose headway.
“Ahoy Surprise!” cried out a tall man, standing in the mizzen chains, improbably dressed, like some farmer, in a shabby jacket and battered straw hat, amidst all the now easily recognized American uniforms. “Do I have the pleasure of addressing Captain Jack Aubrey?”
“Indeed, Sir, but you have me at a loss,” Jack’s strong voice easily carrying the distance between the two ships. “What ship is that?”
“The United States Frigate Guerrière, Commodore Stephen Decatur commanding. Would you do me the great honor of joining me for breakfast?”
As Jack was rowed across, the two ships lay together, rocking in the easy swell. “Ahoy Surprise,” came a voice from the American’s gun deck. “Ha’ ye pressed any American sailors recently?”
“Only from the President, covey,” came back the retort, a shrewd gibe at Decatur’s last command. “Joe Warren, is that you?” called another voice from the Surprise, recognizing an old shipmate now serving with the American Navy these many years.
“The same, matey. And where, pray, is Barrett Bonden, Old Goldilock’s coxswain? Joe Plaice I saw, but I thought the Captain would never part with Bonden for all the world.”
“Barrett Bonden’s lost the number of his mess, Joe Warren. He copped it sudden, a stray shot from a scurvy Algerine pirate just a week before the end of the war. Which there wasn’t a better sailor or man in this or any other barky.”
“Amen to that.” came the answer from the Guerrière.
Jack boarded the Guerrière to full honors − white-gloved sideboys, bos’uns pipes, ships officers and marines. As captain of a private vessel, he would have resolutely declined those honors from a British naval ship. As a British captain on detached service, he was pleased enough to receive them from an American, even as he noted, with the care that one affords a newly met foe, the shocking disparity of power in the American frigate.
As he mounted Guerrière’s quarterdeck, Jack took stock of her captain as well. Decatur had changed from his odd costume into the dress uniform of the American Navy, the same dark navy blue as their British counterparts, but less ornate, no white lace or gold lapels, just a simple gold-trimmed double-breasted coat buttoned high to the chin.
Jack knew Decatur’s reputation well enough. In the last war, he had brought glory to the American side with his victory over the Macedonian in 1812, a glory undimmed by his surrender of the U.S. Frigate President in January 1815, after a long running battle with John Hayes’s blockading British squadron, in which the President had badly mauled Endymion and would have taken her except for the arrival of three other British ships.
Decatur was fine-featured and well-made, curly chestnut hair above a high forehead and brilliant, piercing dark brown eyes. Jack would have called his countenance haughty in another man; in Decatur the impression was one of command – bold, unquestioning confidence, with a sense of instant danger just below the surface.
“I say, Decatur,” Jack began, “I must commend you on how your ship handles. We were running before you with stunsails aloft and alow, and you caught us without effort.”
“You are very kind, Aubrey. You must have noticed her lines when you pulled around to board. We learned some things in the late war from those Baltimore privateers like Boyle’s Chasseur. Doughty has given our new frigates the lines of a Baltimore clipper − sharp ends, especially in the bow, less tumble home and shear, and we carry our ballast lower than European ships, so she sails faster but can still carry a heavy weight of metal on a steady gun platform.”
“Well she truly does carry metal, Decatur,” Jack replied, looking at the 42 lb. smashers on the spar deck. “Lord knows we had enough trouble with your 44 gun frigates. I saw more of Constitution under Bainbridge than I might have wished. But this ship is …” Jack searched his mind for the name of that huge, long-haired cove in the Bible who killed his enemies with the jawbone of an elephant “… a right Goliath. Hardly seems fair to call her a frigate,” he added as an afterthought.
“Fair,” Decatur replied, almost to himself. He turned away into his own thoughts for a moment and Jack gazed across at Surprise, her bow carving the waves cleanly, throwing a glistening spray high above her billet head with each surge. Both ships were sailing easily together on a starboard tack towards Gibraltar before a steadily freshening NW breeze.
Jack could feel the strange, almost frightening energy of the American ship beneath him. He had commanded two-deckers, and knew the majestic force of a British ship of the line, but this feeling was something new − something wild, feral, Stephen would have said − as if the ship had an animal life and will of its own. As he looked at Surprise, sails drawing sweetly, she seemed now, more than ever, a relic of another age − graceful, with her own supple strength, but a relic nonetheless.
“Fair,” mused Decatur, turning to Jack again. “That’s the word Henry Hope used when I was his prisoner aboard the Endymion. My sailing master, Richard Nason, had been talking at dinner about how we shoot partridges out of trees. Captain Hope allowed it wasn’t sporting. ‘Wasn’t gentlemanly. Didn’t seem fair.’ I suspect Nason failed to make a good impression when he replied that when the choice isn’t sport but a matter of food and survival, sitting birds is fair game. And, he said, it’s still a tough shot. Then Nason completely spoiled dinner by talking about the same kind of shooting at Saratoga in ’77.”
Decatur laughed at the memory, clearly intending no harm. Jack reflected that, regardless of the company, the same awkward, unpleasant ending to a dinner would have mortified him completely.
Decatur paused again for a moment. Jack was aware of both of them, fighting captains from different nations, standing together on the quarterdeck. The cold weather that had caught up with them had swept the storm clouds out of the sky. Above the sounds of Guerrière working he could hear the dull roar of the rollers beneath them and see the bright sunlight sparking off the wave tops as the wind whipped the breaking foam into spray. It was a good day to be alive.
“I mean no offense, of course, Aubrey,” Decatur continued, “but you have taught us that we can no longer enjoy the security of thinking we are safe behind our borders, an ocean away from the conflicts of Europe, or for that matter, from pirates like those damned Algerine scoundrels. Our government − and most of our people, I believe − imagined we could remain neutral and let the rest of the world fight for supremacy. This war proved we do not live in such a world that would permit that kind of isolation. Like it or no, we must be a world power, think like one, and act like one. And since we cannot support a huge navy like England, France and the other powers, we must innovate. So we build our American ships not for glory but for slaughter.
“We mean them to be killing machines, bigger and faster and more deadly than anything our future enemies, whomever they may be, can contrive. You will see the first of our 74’s when Billy Bainbridge joins me in the Med with Independence. She’s built along the lines of Constitution. And the new ‘74’s now being designed are as much better ships as Guerrière, here, is an improvement of our ’97 frigates. They are 13’ longer than European ‘74’s, can make 14 knots, and carry a 1800 lb. broadside.”
“My God,” cried Jack. “They could stand up to a 1st rate ship.”
“Exactly,” replied Decatur, and held Jack’s eyes for a moment. Then, after a pause, “But we talk of killing when, in fact, a fine breakfast awaits us. Will you join me?”
As they walked below, Jack found his feelings quite at odds. ‘I would be repelled, disgusted, in fact, by this boldness in another captain, even another American. Coming it too high by half, I would have said. And what did they win? No Glorious First of June, no Copenhagen, or Aboukir Bay. Certainly no Trafalgar, where the fate of Europe hung in doubt. Five small ship encounters out of eight, against, for the most part, out-gunned foes. But, all that in the balance, for the life of me, I would follow this man into the most hazardous fight without a thought.’
Decatur and Aubrey sat in the Captain’s day cabin on the Guerrière, a spacious room even with the two 24 lb. long guns on either side, as the remains of a truly magnificent breakfast were cleared away and fresh brewed coffee served. So newly out of port, Guerrière’s larder could offer up eggs and soft tack, bacon, hasty pudding − rather like stirabout, but sweetened with molasses and maple syrup − cod chowder, fortified with salt pork and potatoes, Jack’s first taste of American white-tailed deer, in a venison and partridge ragoo with dates and currants, and a splendid pumpkin pie, all washed down with a well-chilled 1801 Veuve Clicquot. For amusement, Decatur had entertained them with music from his eight-piece French band, captured when United States took Macedonian in 1812.
Their talk over breakfast moved away from the troubling conversation of their first moments to memories of earlier voyages and younger days. “Well, enough of shipmates living and dead,” said Decatur. “What you said about Lawrence was very fine indeed. We were both of us ‘Preble’s Boys’ as youngsters in the year four. I miss him greatly. But I must say, Aubrey,” continued Decatur, “when we were in the Med annoying the Barbary Pirates, you and your Sophie were all the cry. You must tell me about the Cacafuego. It sounded like the most dashing triumph.”
“Oh, I would not claim the word ‘dashing’ in your company, Decatur. You know, Lord Nelson – whom I revere as a father – said quite the handsomest thing about your cutting out expedition against Philadelphia in that war. He called it ‘the most bold and daring act of the age.’ I wonder if I may ask whether you did indeed refuse the offer of more men by saying ‘The fewer the number, the greater the glory?’ I would have been so pleased to have said that myself.”
“Well,” said Decatur, a warm smile brightening his face, “I may have said that, or something like. But thank’ee Aubrey. You are very good, very kind, indeed. It was all dash and glory in those days. Not much glory, I fear, in what we are about now.” In response to the slightest lift of Jack’s eyebrows, he continued, “I take a squadron of ten ships, the frigates United States, Constellation, and your Macedonia, the Guerrière, of course, two 18-gun sloops, and four cruisers, against these same pirates. We aim to clap a stopper to their capers for good and all.”
“The devil you say,” cried Jack, the beginning of a plan already forming in his mind. “Why we have business, ourselves, with two of their ships, Mashuda and Estedio, and a little errand to run ashore in Algiers, as well. I wonder if I may tell you of it?”
Decatur stood with Christopher Thomas, his First Lieutenant, watching Aubrey being rowed back to the Surprise. Below decks, his men were humorously taunting the British, first with the Revolutionary marching tune, “Chester,” Ross and Cockburn replacing Burgoyne and Cornwallis, and then with a final crushing volley.
Some die of constipation, some die of diarrhea.
Some die of malnutrition, some die of diphtheria.
But of all the dread diseases, the one that we do fear,
Is the drip, drip, drip from the chancred pr–k of a British Grenadier.
Decatur smiled, even as his bo‘suns sharply stilled the singing.
“You know, Thomas, I’ve seen my share of British captains, and by and large, I don’t care much for the breed. So ridiculously puffed up at having beaten the French and Spanish − as if that were an accomplishment.” Hope, of the Endymion had run true to form, he recalled. ‘Stuffy, aloof, proud to a fault, and insufferably pleased with himself for having captured the President, all of it under the false colors of politeness.
“You recall how smug Hope was when I offered my sword. ‘Happy to return the sword of an officer who had defended his ship so nobly.’ Damn his eyes for that. Had I met him on the street, I might have caned him.”
“Then there was Carden of the Macedonian, quite the bulldog, but one with decidedly more growl than teeth. You remember Macedonian was visiting Norfolk before the war, he actually had the effrontery to say to me, ‘Your ships may be good enough, and you are a clever set of fellows, but what practice have you had in war? Should we meet as enemies, what do you suppose will be the result?’”
Thomas laughed in agreement. “He actually fancied his 18 pounders were superior to our 24’s − thought we wouldn’t be able to fire our heavier guns as quickly or with as deadly effect as a seasoned British crew. Indeed.”
Decatur’s thoughts went back to the battle. “When we met, he took the bait of the weather gauge I hung out for him, to press the attack and batter it out, ship against ship. ‘No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship along side that of an enemy.’ So much for British pluck. We encouraged him by backing the mizzen tops so we were both sailing rap-full, then just drew him into the slaughter, staying two points to windward and slipping away as he neared, out of range of his cannon while we battered him to pieces. I doubt he ever realized what we were about.”
“I wonder what he thought,’ Thomas added, “when he realized we ‘clever fellows’ were firing twice as fast as his ‘seasoned’ crew of pressed foreigners, gaol scum, and Lord Mayor’s men. How he kept trying. At one point, he had a notion of boarding us. I should have liked to see him try that!”
“Well, we taught him that bulldogs can’t bite with their teeth pulled,” Decatur answered with grim satisfaction. “They bleed well enough, too, if you gut them properly. He lost his ship and over 100 of his crew; we had seven dead and five wounded. And unlike Dacres, he forced his pressed American seaman to fight against their own countrymen under peril of their lives, the damned scrub. Yet with all of that, how utterly ashamed he was at the ignominy of having to offer his sword to an American. He actually seemed pleased to learn that his was not the first British frigate to strike to us, Hull having sunk Guerrière two months before. Let him enjoy his small beer, I say.
“But this Aubrey is different, more like Dacres and Hillyer. A right seaman, and the scars on his face are his character. Stiff in his own way, but no airs about him, rather, a man talking to a man. Bold, enough, too, and dangerous. Had we been the Mashuda and decided to bear down on him, he might have cut us up, even with those little 12 pounders. And making himself a bomb ketch with that artillery howitzer on the stern to lob exploding shells on our decks where the planking’s only 4 inches thick − I’ll have to remember that trick.
“And he is in a deuced pickle with his friend and the British Government. As weak, witless and obstinate as Jefferson’s damned Republicans. I like his plan. It serves well, and tweaking the Government’s nose would be amusing. But how cautious he was in seeking my help. ‘I speak as one who is totally ignorant…’ ‘I am sure I am wholly mistaken, but if you will forgive me…’ ‘Would it be possible, at all, to….’ A girl filling out her first dance card at a ball could not have been more complacent.”
Two weeks later, the American fleet stood outside the semicircular bay of Algiers, its walled, whitewashed city rising like an amphitheater in the surrounding hills, dazzlingly bright in the hot African sun. Aubrey had re-joined Decatur on Guerrière, this time in a small boat with no ceremony.
“Decatur,” Aubrey exclaimed warmly as they met on the quarterdeck, “I wish you joy of Mashuda! Your action was masterful – the completest thing. I never would have imagined…
“No, no,” Decatur interrupted, brusquely. “No mastery in this business, I fear, and less joy. The Constellation drove Mashuda right under our guns, like a dog with a woodcock, and in twenty minutes she was a hulk, rudderless, dismasted, her upper decks swept clear of men, and her ‘tween decks a bloody charnel house of knee-deep splinters, wrecked cannon, screaming wounded, and corpses − including their admiral, Reis Hammida. I may have talked before of shooting sitting birds. This was more like clubbing baby seals. But I understand you met with success as well?”
“Indeed. The felluca we captured lies just over the horizon.”
“I take it there was fierce resistance, and thus, lamentably, no prisoners?”
“It was warm work,” Aubrey replied, with an equally cold look. “I’ve heard that when their warriors die in battle, they ascend immediately to a blissful heavenly paradise. So we sent ‘em all to their reward. Whatever tales they have to tell may be told in that place, not here. They were kind enough to give us their clothing as well. But what of your negotiations with the Algerines? Will our plan still hold?”
“The loss of Mashuda and Estedio, along with their admiral, captured their attention. There was the usual talk of discussions − which I ended by saying that we were at war, and until the signed treaty was returned in a boat carrying all their American captives, any Algerine ship we met would be sunk or captured. Peace at the muzzle of a cannon I should call it. Their fleet is running back here to safety with no notion of what awaits them. I shouldn’t doubt they will agree promptly enough. So I suspect you must act quickly. Where will you land?”
Jack pointed to the city spread before them like a furled topsail. “Do you see the two minarets there within the city, to the left of the lighthouse, by the mole and main batteries?” Decatur adjusted his glass to bring that part of the city in plain view. “Now come forward to the apex of a triangle between them and you will see a taller building with banners above it.”
Decatur nodded. “Just so.”
“Dr. Jacobs assures us that is where Stephen is kept. Now look by the jetty to the east of the mole for a gate in the fortress. Can you make it out? From there it is but 200 yards to the prison.”
“Excellent,” Decatur answered, looking back over the bay spread before them and gauging the distances and timing. “Downes in Epervier will chase you in, with a great show of cannon fire and, I am sure, some antic business on your part of shot away rigging and loose sails. They will certainly expect you to seek the shelter of the mole and land at the jetty. As we join the pursuit, I will be sure to pepper the jetty from Guerrière to discourage attention. But once you have landed, then what?”
“Over the years,” Jack replied after a pause, “I have been called ‘Lucky Jack Aubrey.’ I will need all of that and more once we are inside, I think. But both of us, Decatur, have had our share of cutting out expeditions. Now I just go after a man, not a ship.”
That evening, the rescue completed, Stephen was carried tenderly aboard. Since Guerrière had been designed for a commodore’s flagship, it had been fitted with two identical sleeping cabins, one on either side of the stern gallery. William Lewis, Decatur’s captain, had graciously offered his cabin to Stephen.
“So, the Doctor? How does he?” asked Decatur, as he happily greeted Jack’s entrance into the day cabin of Guerrière. “I trust Mr. Clyde-Jones is caring well for him? Will you have some brandy?” Jack allowed himself to take the proffered glass and collapse into a chair.
“As for the Doctor,” Aubrey replied, “it is between tides, whether he comes back, or goes. I must thank you for Dr. Clyde-Jones. He and Stephen met in Boston after the taking of the Java, and he and Stephen are very well. Clyde-Jones thinks the world of him. He shooed us out of the cabin as if we were noisy school boys. He will do all anyone can. But it really lies with Stephen. If he chooses to live, he will return to us. I never knew a man with a greater spirit.”
“I hunger for the details, Aubrey. How, in all goodness, did you manage the escape?”
“You know of our landing, and I must thank you for the mischief you created on the jetty. Once past the gates, it was but a short run through deserted streets to the prison. Faces blackened, costumed as we were, the guards let us in to the prison and died in the same moment. But when we broke into his cell, we saw him manacled and chained to the floor by one wrist, and my heart absolutely fell. How I cursed myself that I had not thought to bring a cold chisel and mallet. Had one of my junior officers been so dense, I swear I would have bowspritted him. So there we were, Stephen in bilboes, and but ten minutes left of the time Dr. Jacobs had promised us.
“We gave him water. How happy he was for it, the poor wretch. The dogs had starved him until he was no stronger than the least puff of wind. ‘Stephen, ’ I said to him. ‘You see how it is. I must cut off your hand to save you, and there is not a moment to lose. Tell me where I must do it.’
“‘Never in life, my dear,’ he answered back, in the hoarsest whisper, each utterance an agony of breath. ‘I tell you what you must do now, acushla. You must dislocate the base of my thumb, reducing my hand to the width of my wrist, don’t you see. Then you can pull my hand quite free.’
“He ran on about pressuring the metacarpal polynices – or was it policis – astride something like the greater multangular, and discoupling the joint, as one unseats the rider from his saddle. I was perfectly in irons there, Decatur. All Greek to me. I must have stared at him like a booby. ‘But the shock, Stephen dear.’ I protested. ‘Weak as you are, may it not kill you, for all love?’
‘In that case,’ he said, ‘once I am dead, Jack, why then you may cut off my hand, or my head, or any other part of me you wish.’
“Then he told me what to do – where to place my thumbs, dyce, as it were, how to pull back and push just so, as calmly as if we were discussing separating the leg from a roasted chicken. ‘Have no fear, Jack,’ he said. ‘Thanks to Dutourd and those other devils who tortured me in Mahon, you will find my thumb will wish to disarticulate from its socket as easy as you please.’
“ His final words were, ‘And remember, Jack, when my hand is free, you must reverse the maneuver to reduce the thumb back in its socket as quick as ever you may, lest the spasms that will come make it impossible to restore the joint.’ There was never a doubt in him but that I would succeed.
“With that, he seemed to withdraw into himself to some deep place I cannot imagine. Decatur, it was as if he closed down his mind to all sense and all pain. When I looked into his eyes, he was alert, but I felt like I was staring into the soul of a shark − or some reptile.
“And so, Lord knows how, I did it. By the mercy, he fainted with the first pressure. Then as luck would have it, we found our way into the boat bringing back the treaty and the American prisoners. Decatur, that brandy is manna from Heaven. Might I trouble you for another glass? So,” Jack continued, “we had only to dispossess some of the guards of their places in the boat. You were quite right about the need for haste, by the way − our adventure seems to have hastened the Dey’s deliberations. And now here he lies and we must pray for him.”
“And so we shall. But you, Aubrey, you were the one. Bold isn’t in it. I suspect that the real story of the rescue of Maturin and the capture of the Estedio must never be uttered, for reasons we both know too well. So we Americans will get the credit for all this business, I fear. But if the tale could be well and truly told, why, the world would say that your stroke, Aubrey, not mine, was indeed the most bold and daring act of our age.”
“You are very good, Decatur. You quite humble me,” Jack replied. “I tell you what it is, though. I am, sure, not one of those Bible-quoting captains who will whip you out a verse of scripture before they ever lay a gun, and unlike the Doctor, I am no great fist at philosophy neither, but perhaps there is another hand in all this. When I think of the fair seas and cruel lee shores, the battles won and the shipmates lost, all the risk and all the glory, it strikes me that we must give thanks to the one who created Stephen and me. Without him we could surely never have enjoyed the glory, endured the risks, or lived to tell this story.”