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A Roman Ruin

[dac]
 
12 September 1808

My dear Jack,

A thousand apologies that it has taken so long for me to write to you, Indeed I believe this may be the first letter since we disembarked at Naples. But Jack what wonders I have to tell. You will know that the Lord Hamilton is ambassador here, you will probably also know him the more for his unfortunate marriage my dear, but in truth he is a most eminent collector of antiquities, indeed he was kind enough (after his initial and most understandable coldness to me - I was dressed in my surgeon's uniform at Diana's insistence) to introduce me to Lord Elgin. I have as their guest visited those most unfortunate of ruins Pompeii and Herculaneum that Pliny wrote of, where he and Elgin have found some astonishing things. Indeed Diana has been of great benefit to them and entertained herself most royally by piloting her balloon over the site for their benefit.

However, Jack, this is but an aside to the wonderful conceit I have to share that may amuse you and should you choose as a jest allow you to claim seniority over Neptune himself on the Naval List!

You will understand that the site is riddled with excavations, some most cavernous and many, excavated at the close of the last age quite overgrown. It was down one of these shafts that I recently saw a most interesting lizard vanish, a most original saurian specimen. I naturally, though with some difficulty, followed and found myself in a partly excavated solarium, with faded but quite legible frescos in the walls, very much on a naval theme. Artefacts were left very much as they must have fallen during the eruption and a vase of most exquisite workmanship caught my eye. I thought to use it to contain my lizard and then later present it to Hamilton, but the inscription amused me. I shall translate ..loosely.. Jack.

"Julius Aubreii, Tribune of the Fleet of the Republic. Presented in thanks by the Senate, by order of the People of Rome for his victories against Carthage."

My dear, your pedigree, it seems, is most impressive!

I hope you are having a most prosperous voyage
Your friend and obedient servant
Stephen
 

14 September 1808

Jack,

I pray that this letter reaches you with my previous correspondence - Bonden feels it likely that the same packet will carry both. A most disastrous occurrence has taken place. My journal has been stolen by a French agent. I only hope the cryptography proves a barrier to him. I found when trying to exit the Solarium I mentioned in my last letter that I could not do so without both hands and so to prevent the lizard escaping your vase I wedged my journal in the top. I did not think on it as I carried my prize to my quarters but when I awoke the next morning found the vase with all it contained missing. Enquiries have revealed that many of the site workers are in the pay of the French and instructed to harvest interesting artefacts for them. I can only surmise that this is the fate of the vase and my journal. Bonden (oh how thankful I am that you lent him to me) has made investigations and a French collector was seen boarding a corvette that impudently sailed into the Bay off Naples on Thursday. It seems that it was L'Argos. Lord Hamilton in his capacity as an Ambassador has agreed to you being removed from the wretched convoy duty Admiral Harte assigned you to and to track down this thief. I cannot express how important this is Jack. Your official orders are enclosed.

Stephen

[bat] Jack Aubrey strode up and down the quarterdeck of HMS Urania, pausing at each turn to cast an impatient eye forward at the tiny pyramid of sails atop the distant horizon, never drawing nearer and, his heart whispered, slowly, ever so slowly edging further away. The anxious glances of the old hands told the same story.

"Mr Critchley," Jack called to the first lieutenant, "a reef in the foretopsail." The mute reluctance of the crew was evident in the untoward sluggishness of their ascent to the yard. "Must I send a bosun's mate aloft, Mr Moseley?" he shouted up to the nervous midshipman who was vainly urging the men to hurry, the boy's voice breaking into a reedy squeak. "Awkward sods," Jack murmured, although aware that their unwillingness stemmed from a wholly well-intended desire to stretch every inch of canvas in chase. But the frigate's labored progress through the rolling waves suggested she might do better if not pressed down quite so much at the head. For the hundredth time he wished it were Surprise beneath his feet, the handiest craft on a bowline he had ever sailed, but she was in a Channel dockyard, her old, deep wounds being repaired. Instead he must drive against this steady north breeze in a too-broad, too-shallow, Dutch-built hull with its unconscionable avidity for leeway. "Your Annie" was never happy without the wind far abaft her beam.

"I fancy we've come up a quarter of a point," Critchley offered once the reef was taken, slowly, grudgingly taken. "Or perhaps not quite that," he amended himself as Urania yawed against the insistent thrust of a particularly high wave.

"Land two points on the starboard bow," the lookout cried down. "A right flat-topped mountain." Mons d'Otte, the charts named it, but men of the Royal Navy during their protracted blockade of France's Mediterranean coast had long-since renamed it Mount Dotty. Jack straightened his back and stared with stolid resignation ahead at the white dot of canvas dwindling beneath a sky already showing the inexorable approach of evening. "However shall I tell Stephen?" Jack's inner voice asked. He had never known, had never cared to ask what terrible secrets Stephen kept in his journals, but he feared that the value of those secrets might be rather more than the cost of a new Third Rate, fresh from the yards, or even a First Rate. "The corvette will anchor at Finlee Sur La Mer before dark, Mr Critchley, and there is nothing we can do to prevent it."

"Shall we cut her out tonight, sir?" the lieutenant asked, a hungry calculation of gold guineas manifest in his eyes.

"Not with this wind and those shocking great batteries of 42-pounders protecting the harbor entrance. No, we must wait our chance, even if it be halfway to Paris."

"The corvette is going to Paris, sir?" Critchley inquired, silently conjecturing that Buonoparte had perhaps constructed a great canal to join his capital with the Mediterranean.

"The lizard, Mr Critchley, the lizard," Jack answered absently and turned to go below, leaving his first lieutenant to wonder if "L'Argos" meant Lizard in French. He did so wish he had been more attentive to his foreign language studies at The Skinner School for Prospective Young Sea Officers at home in Lower Bramwell-on-Thames.

[sdw] Some gunrooms were nests of singing birds; others were parliaments; yet others academies for strategy and navigation. The Urania's gunroom, however, was a den of scribblers. Evenings without dinners or other formal entertainments found the officers, pens earnestly squeaking, setting down poetry, novels, discourses, proofs, farces, treatises on probability, interrupted only by someone calling out for a synonym for clew, or the clank of a decanter on a glass.

Since the news, however, the nibs had dried and the inkpots stood unattended. There had been occasional fits and starts: Critch was game, as usual, and Trinque carried on. But Zimmermann's chair stood empty. Wilson seemed puzzled. Even the Captain's violin, clearly audible in the evening silence, only tuned and played short, experimental phrases, always breaking off before a true melody emerged.

Mr Moseley, who had come to share the peace and space of the gunroom table, gazed furtively round and wondered at the literary reputation. They seemed precious little inclined to set pen to paper. Presently Wilson turned an encouraging smile on him, pushed the decanter along, and said, "Mr Moseley: the bottle stands by you."

(abandoned)

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