Blue at the Mizzen
|<- The Hundred Days|
A day out of Gibraltar and bound for South America, the Surprise collides with a reckless merchantman and has to limp back, where repairs must be carried out illegally since it has become a private vessel again. The port admiral, however, helps them get to sea since Jack has been having an affair with his wife. They reach the yard in Madiera only to find it ablaze and are obliged to go back to England if they hope to face the Horn.
Stephen precedes Jack in the Ringle to consult the ministry on a badly encoded letter from Jacob Amos regarding the Chileans and is distressed to learn that another group of Chileans, from the south, has independently engaged Sir David Lindsay, a captain very fond of dueling, disgraced for challenging his admiral, to head up their navy.
In London, Jack engages Horatio Daniels as a midshipman upon meeting the boy, although he’s never been to sea before—unbeknownst to Jack he’s done a great favor for the Duke of Clarence, a prince and Stephen’s former patient (and the future King William IV), who is secretly the boy’s illegitimate father.
Jack and Stephen are able to spend a few weeks at home with their families before they put to sea in a hurry. Calling at Madeira they pick up Jacob and then stop in Africa so Stephen can ask Christina Wood to marry him (he’s learned her husband the governor has died in The Hundred Days). Her previous husband’s sexual problems have left her quite disgusted by the act, yet her initial refusal seems to soften as she considers Stephen’s offer. In any event, she offers to stop at Woodcombe to deliver Stephen and Jack’s letters when she travels to England in a few months.
They put Jacob ashore in Rio to cross the continent and get in touch with their contacts in Chile before their arrival, and also get the chance to inspect David Lindsay’s rebuilt frigate and brig, a considerable force.
Rounding the Horn proves unusually difficult and many of the crew perish. They nearly starve but it does afford Daniels the opportunity to become an excellent seaman and to earn the crew’s respect as a formidable boxer.
Putting in to Valparaiso, Jack learns Lindsay has beaten him there in a foolhardy passage of Magellan’s Strait. An uneasy coexistence begins between the two, mirroring the co-existence of the northern and southern factions. More pleasant are Jack and Stephen’s relations with a group of English naturalists who are studying flora and fauna aboard a private vessel.
Jacob and Stephen learn that the Spanish forces in Peru plan to attack but must equip their ships to do so. With the support of O’Higgens (Stephen’s friend from the northern faction, currently supreme commander) and his aide Colonel Valdes (Stephen’s cousin) the Surprises support a group of Chilean soldiers in an attack on Valdivia, where they capture the Peruvians’ naval stores and a great deal of treasure, postponing the threat.
Back in Valparaiso, Stephen is happy to learn that Christine has been staying at Woodcombe and has become very attached to Brigid, as he hoped. Unhappily, Lindsay is killed in a duel with his first lieutenant and Jack’s insistence that he be immediately buried at sea has angered the southern faction who are in the ascendency. They order Surprise seized, so Jack puts to sea with a plan typical of him—to attack the Peruvian’s only line of battle ship, the Esmeralda, in its port and cut it out. This the Surprise accomplishes by entering the port disguised as a merchantman, though Jack is badly wounded and saved only by Daniels’s gallant defense and quick thinking.
Jack immediately sends word of this stunning victory overland to Sir Joseph Blaine, hoping that it might reach London before it is decided who will command the new South African squadron being prepared.
Meanwhile O’Higgens is out but Jack’s exploits have put him in the good graces of the new government who nonetheless are withholding prize money. This gives Jack the excuse he needs to break his contract with the Chileans when Stephen brings him a coded message from Sir Joseph to “proceed to the River Plate, there joining the South African squadron… hoisting your flag, blue at the mizzen” aboard HMS Implacable as Admiral of the Blue Squadron.
Nearly every book of this series has ended like it would be the last and that’s a good thing when you finally do reach the last one. However we’re left hanging on a number of points, not the least of which is Stephen’s fate with Christine Wood. It’s easy to imagine that everything will go as Jack has hoped—he will bring Sophie and the children to Capetown to live with him and finally be able to give them the time they deserve (something he deeply wants, judging by a scene in this book where he’s overcome by a fit of sobs on receiving a letter from her). Stephen’s luck is seldom so good and I wonder what O’Brian had in store for him in this new twist of fate. I guess I’ll never know. I’m going to miss this series of books very much indeed and though it’s disappointing to have so many things about it unresolved, it gives the impression of the characters going on and on, which is a comfort. In the end the events of these novels hardly matter at all. It’s the characters that have experienced these adventures that are truly impossible to forget and there could be worse endings than watching them sail off happily to Africa. (4/17/07)