Dedicated to my friends pictured within who have kept me company on many a voyage.
"Killick!" called Captain Jack Aubrey. His shrewish steward poked his head round the cabin door and grumbled "Which I'm polishing the silver for tonight."
"Never mind that for now. You and Bonden must rouse out the doctor and make him ready before my guests arrive." Jack listened to Killick's muttering move off through the ship then inspected the great cabin. He did not know what Killick could find to polish as every metal surface already gleamed, as did most of the wood. Soon after he wished the same could be said of his particular friend, Doctor Stephen Maturin. Killick and Bonden had done what they could but there was no power on earth capable of making the doctor look like something fit for the company of naval officers. Jack sighed.
"So it is tonight, I collect?" said the doctor.
"It is Stephen, and I had hoped you would be ready and fit for company." Stephen appeared ready to comment but Jack ignored him. "Now you must pay attention. I have a good many guests coming tonight and I should be obliged if you pay attention and do nothing that might upset them.
"Guests is it? Who might they be?"
"Not that I haven't told you above a dozen times. There will be enough captains on board to hold a court martial so any inappropriate behaviour can be swiftly punished. Firstly we have that odd chap Tendentio Trumpeter. He should have been with us when we took the Spanish treasure ships but absented himself for some reason. I suspect that he got wind of that 'droits of admiralty' business and realised there was no point in joining us. Don't play whist with him - he used to keep himself by his card playing skills during the Peace."
"Maybe he could join us in that partita by Bach's father. Shall we play tonight?"
"I hope so, but don't count on Trumpeter to join in. Next we have - well, his name in the service is Nigel Rampant. His father is the Cornish Earl but he don't use his title at sea."
"A son of the Prince of Wales?"
"No, the Cornish Earl, not the Duke of Cornwall. Do pay attention Stephen. His father's case was an old service scandal in the last age, and it would be best not to refer to it. Next we have another Cornishman, Robert Rockball and Neville Abstainer. Please on no account mention politics in front of either as they are both practically Jacobins and can be the gloomiest fellows in the navy. Rockball used to be known as 'Equality Bob' at the time of the Mutinies. Lastly we have Renard Delicacy, a Guernseyman who has worked with the Prince d'Auvergne. I had to invite him because that lugger we took, the one with the cargo of smuggled brandy we'll be drinking tonight, had a crew of his friends and I know he means to ask me to release them - prime seamen and I saved them an encounter with a Bridport dagger. He and Abstainer may be of interest to you; I believe both have connections with intelligence."
"Thank you for mentioning it," said Stephen. "I am sure we shall have something to talk about." He made a note to do no such thing, having a low regard of other intelligence officers he had met.
"Tottenham!" called a voice from across the water. Jack looked around. "That must be the first of our guests. May we all have a pleasant evening of it."
It was a pleasant evening. Trumpeter had brought his steward who spent the time, much to Killick's disgust, filling a bag with choice items to take away. "We have been on very short commons lately." said Trumpeter. "I don't know when we will be able to replenish my stores."
"Indeed," said Jack, looking north to Portsmouth and south to Ryde. "Could you not go ashore at any time?"
"Alas duty forbids," said Trumpeter. "And, to tell the truth, I sometimes feel uncomfortable crossing Spithead in a small boat."
Captain Delicacy presented Jack with a list of the smugglers he wished released from the service and given into his custody. As Jack turned to the third page he asked why Delicacy wanted so many men returned. "You know how it is," said Delicacy. "At sea work expands to employ the hands available." There was an attempt at whist but Trumpeter refused to play at the same table as Rampant. "He has no concept of the right card to play."
"That used to upset Tendentio when we were mids together," said Rampant. "He could not accept that when he played the right cards I played the winning cards.
Jack hastily arranged for the music to start. The tension was soon broken when Trumpeter jumped to his feet, cracking his skull on a deck beam, under the impression that Old Bach's partita was in fact "God Save the King". Soon everybody was joining in with the old favourites. Rockball gave a stirring rendition of "Hearts of Oak" and even the tone deaf Trumpeter joined in for "Three Blind Mice". There was a minor disturbance outside as the coxswains of the various captain's barges came to blows when Rockball's coxswain took exception to the American performing that office for Rampant; a grievance dating back to the American war of the previous century, but it soon subsided when Jack's Coxswain, the one time champion of the Mediterranean fleet, joined the mill and laid the others out.
Finally Jack called for attention. "We shall have one last toast, gentlemen, with a bumper three times three. I give you confusion to Bonaparte, God bless us one and all, a Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!"
© 2001 Martin Watts