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Naval Manoeuvres

I've recently been considering a couple of conversations reported by Jack Aubrey and wondering about the context in which they occurred. Not being a poet I'm afraid I have only been able to render it in prose, the result (which I dedicate to the Gunroom for maintaining my grip on sanity for another year) going something like this:

Lieutenant Aubrey, late of the Leander and newly exchanged from a French prison, nervously entered the residence of the British ambassador in Naples. Nature had not intended Lt Aubrey for the diplomatic world and his fervent wish was to escape the evening without attracting too much attention from his superiors. He had already recognised enough Post Captains to form a court martial and after the loss of the Leander he had no wish to stand before such a judgement seat again in his life.

The introductions passed in a daze. Jack would afterwards recall that he had been introduced to the ambassador and his wife, and feel satisfaction that he had ignored his natural inclinations and left the ambassador's wife to follow her own. In truth he could claim little credit for this wise behaviour as his attention had been drawn to the slight figure standing beside the ambassador's wife. Once again he took a surreptitious look at his gold Nile medal and compared the image with the rather battered reality before him. He circulated around the room and nibbled on some gilt-coated confections of nuts and chocolate that had been stacked in pyramids, in honour of Egypt and the Nile. Jack circulated amongst the other junior officers exchanging the usual small talk of the service until the guests were called in to dine.

From his place near the bottom of the table Jack watched the senior officers sitting either side of the Admiral. One day he might be in such elevated company. He allowed himself a brief fantasy; Captain Aubrey sitting at the Admiral's side as Captain Berry was sitting that night. Admiral Aubrey holding court with Post Captains listening attentively to every word he said. Someboday was calling his name.

"Mr Aubrey, may I trouble you to pass the salt," said the Admiral. "Santissima Trinidad," he told Captain Berry. "It will be a worthy representation for a four decker."

Jack came to a full alert. "Certainly my Lord." He grabbed the silver saltcellar and propelled it across the table – the all too highly polished table – realised his mistake the instant it left his hand and passed beyond recall. The whole table watched as the saltcellar shot up the table towards the motley collection of tableware that the Admiral had pressed into service to illustrate a particular point in the action off Cape St Vincent. Like a hammer blow the saltcellar shattered the Spanish line of battle and skidded off the table to be caught in the Admiral's hand.

"It appears that Mr Aubrey has his own conception of naval strategy gentlemen," said the Admiral. "Never mind manoeuvres – always go straight at them!"

© Martin Watts 2003