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Artists of the Floating World

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For almost the first time in his long and adventurous career, Jack hesitated to engage the enemy. Blue skies, fair winds, indeed the weather gage, if only the dear Surprise had ocean beneath her in which to swim. But to the horizon, there was no open water to be seen, only wet sand, salty puddles and the occasional gasping sea creature. Two frigates lay across from each other at prime firing range, were they not both set at an awkward angle on the sea bottom, one row of gun ports pointed aimlessly at the sky, the other aimed uselessly at the sand.

The French and British parties eyed each other under a flapping flag of truce. Jack much regretted that in Stephen's absence he had no trustworthy, discreet French speaker on hand to assist with translation, except... 'Mister Babbington! You have acquired some of the French, have you not?' Babbington demurred.

'I remember distinctly that during our last time on blockade duty you asked to be put ashore for some sessions of French instruction with a young person. I advanced the money from your pay. Do you say that you remember nothing from these visits?' Babbington reddened. 'Perhaps some odd snatches, sir...' He took his place at Jack's side as the negotiations began.

The French commander was named Truffaut, which seemed vaguely familiar to Jack. ('Which it's a dirty mushroom they put in their cooking, ain't it?' said Killick.) Truffaut spoke briefly and then Dali, a Spanish supernumerary and inventor of timepieces which turned out to be sadly unreliable in warm weather, who was acting as translator for the French side, prepared to speak

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but he spoke with double tongue (triple, really, if you take into account his mastery not only of French and English but of the tongue of his beloved native soil, Catalonia). "I will have a peek at the English captain's chronometer and check our bearings", he said and bounded over the puddles to apologise to Esteban for the effect of his ruse with the French timepieces on those of the English ship. He was searching for the words that might explain the grounding of both vessels, absurd even allowing for the sea having so unaccountably receded, and had just lit upon "spooky action at a distance" when he collided with the unfortunate Babbington puddle-hopping in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile, the starboard watch was contemplating the waste of sand – "A life on the ocean wave, my arse", said Faster Doudle "What we need mates is a bloody great wave". One of the newer recruits perked up. "Waves are my speciality" thought Hokusai.

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With eerie simultaneity, Admiral Truffaut was thinking about waves at that exact moment, in fact longing for a wave to appear and sweep them all from their present predicament. But as the sun sank behind the Surprise no new wave arose; only a freshening of the breeze and the two somewhat damp translators returning to their duty.

As the discussion ran its ill-tempered course, the chill wind found its way under Jack's uniform, waking the ghosts of ancient scars. Jack tried to imagine how his hero would have found a way around this impasse. Nelson would not be troubled by old wounds, would never feel the cold. 'His zeal for his country kept him warm,' said Jack wonderingly, half to himself.

Truffaut glanced at his interpreter. 'The Englishman keeps a seal in the country. He says it makes him hot.'

The Admiral mused briefly on the peculiar tropisms of the Royal Navy, condemned among all nations afloat as a depraved and corrupt institution. They had court-martialed one of their own commanders, Admiral Byng, and had him shot on the quarterdeck. Truffaut rubbed his heart absently and imagined Byng's final thoughts as the muskets of his own nation were trained on that patriotic organ, 'pour encourager les autres,' in the acid words of Voltaire.

'Why does he mutter and rub his God-damned breast in that lewd way, William?' said Jack irritably.

'He says it encourages the otters, sir,' replied Babbington.

Jack pondered the filthy practices of La Royale, infamous in all the oceans of the globe as a corrupt and depraved institution. He realized that there was nothing further to be gained from negotiation with such a foe. It would be battle, and the outcome far from certain.

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With the Surprise's gunports aimed uselessly at the sand, the responsibility for ensuring a successful outcome rested heavily on the shoulders of the frigate's official war artist, young Mr. J.M.W. Turner. Out of sight on the starboard cat head, he worked away with quick, deft strokes to adjust the ship's trim under the supervision of the gunner, Mr Day – "Down a bit...no, no, up a bit more, we ain't aiming at the flaming prawns...a bit more chrome yellow on the rigging ..."

Capitaine de frégate Truffaut felt bilious. The curious contrasts of tonality, the kaleidoscopic colour changes and the unpredictable lurches of the British vessel were unsettling to the stomach of even an old sea wolf like himself

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Truffaut invited his officers to survey the situation. Munch clapped his hands to his face and uttered a little scream, as Lautrec gazed up helplessly at the starboard rail. ‘Your thoughts, gentlemen? And no, Monsieur Géricault, we will not be scuttling the vessel for now.' Géricault was an aspiring artist who had produced one quite good, if unsaleable, work, and was rather inclined toward ship abandonment as the tactical response for every situation. ‘Your painting is admirable, but the people enjoy inspiring pictures of battles, noble commanders, actual vessels, not les misérables on the raft. We survived the albatross sighting, the syphilis outbreak and last month's butter shortage without breaking up the frégate for construction material, and I believe we shall survive this also.'

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At the very instant (Au même instant) that Captain Truffaut was radiating confidence and calm among the officers of Le Terrible, a nearly bald old focsle hand was addressing Jack Aubrey. "Beg parm, Captain but" (cocking his head towards his companion and administering a sharp nudge) Hokusai here who we saved from that wicked pirate junk off Java when I almost copped it and lost my pigtail..."But his prologue was cut short when the beaming Hokusai flashed out for Jack's consideration a delicate woodblock print of the Surprise cresting a giant wave. "Kamikaze" he said with a bow. "Your servant", Jack responded, making a leg.

It would tire readers of this yarn to have to follow the steps by which intellects already sent tottering by Babbington's attempts at a French unseen finally grasped the notion that some weather might be in the offing


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... but an observer in the foretop would have seen a vehement Hokusai addressing Jack with the assistance of a series of woodcuts and several antic interjections, Jack particularly admiring the "24 views of Shelmerston harbour" and the tonsured cove apparently on shore leave enjoying a very good time with a lady friend, while being unable to relate these scenes to the main narrative. The thrust of it was clear, though: there was to be a divine wind, followed by an enormous wave, then something to do with cherry blossoms.

The foretop lookout might at that moment have shot out a hand to steady himself as the ship lurched; might have glanced suddenly at the horizon and called, ‘Ahoy there on deck!' But what actually happened is that Jack ran to the quarterdeck, sensing that the people had to be brought to their duty with not a moment to be lost. ‘A double ration of grog and two episodes of "Portsmouth's Next Top Model" for the first watch ready at their post!' he roared.

The Surprise shuddered as a sudden gust swept over the hull.

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Let the curator of Le Salon des Refusés take up the tale:
"Among the survivors of the typhoon Sous-Lieutenant Théodore Géricault, whose imaginative reconstruction of all hands taking to the boats will disappoint those art-lovers who might have been hoping for a larger butcher's bill, or at least for the young officer's preferred themes of starvation, dehydration and cannibalism while in a state of undress."

The brochure of The Royal Academy expressed similiar disappointment in "Waves off The – Coast" – a series of nautical woodcuts in the Japanese style by Ordinary Seaman Katsushika Hokusai. "Though technically competent and giving some insight into the recent weather conditions in that part of the watery globe,they do not impress the viewer with any notion of the scale of the hurricano." "Oh," said Sophie "I find them more than elegant. Indeed, they are beautiful. May we not buy them for the small parlour? And surely this next is the dear Surprise herself, though not looking herself at all? Why has Mr J. M. W. Turner painted her flags and pennants drooping so?" "This is 'The Surprise in Mourning'. We lost two prime hands in the big blow" said Jack.

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Sophie waited patiently, attentively, as Jack struggled to find words to explain the curious episode. Finally he shrugged and smiled and brought the butter knife to bear on a fresh piece of toast.

'Sometimes, my dear, when we're at sea, we're a little ashore.'

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