The Letter of Marque

<- The Reverse of the Medal The Thirteen Gun Salute ->


Sombre, short-tempered, and wasting away over his dismissal from the Navy, Jack sets out in the Surprise, now a letter of marque, with three missions ahead of it—the first a shakedown to train a new crew of volunteers (including the shipless Pullings as first mate), the second into the Baltic so Stephen can return the Blue Peter to Diana, and the third an intelligence mission to South America.

Stephen explains to Jack that Blaine (now back in charge of naval intelligence) and others are convinced of Jack's innocence, but it shall be difficult to prove it since Ledward and Wray escaped to Paris, possibly with highly placed aid (and Duhamel accidentally drowned on the way to Quebec).

Acting on a tip from Babbington, who now captains the Tarturus and has Fanny Wray (formerly Miss Harte) aboard with him, the Surprise succeeds where it failed earlier, capturing the French-American privateer Spartan, its consort Merlin, and five of its prizes in the Azores, all while avoiding the Constitution, which is reported in those waters.

This, and the settlement of a major lawsuit in Jack’s favor, solves the Aubreys’ financial problems, but these are empty victories. Jack repeatedly states he’d “give his right arm” to be reinstated, and Joseph Blaine comes up with just such an opportunity: a brand new French frigate, the Diane, will soon embark from the port of St. Martin for South America on a mission similiar to Stephen’s.

Jack devises a plan to cut the ship out of the port and accomplishes it with minimal help from the blockading squadron, led by Babbington who, assured of promotion to post captain thanks to political connections, stays out of it so Aubrey can hog the glory. Stephen joins the boarding party and captures the brutal French intelligence agent called the Red Admiral along with his papers (he later escapes dressed as a prostitute) and also kills the Diane’s captain in a fight that turns desperate when the ship gets caught on gunboats also moored at the pier. Jack is critically wounded (slashes to an arm and leg, plus a bullet in the spine painfully presses on the sciatic nerve), but makes off with not only the Diane but the gunboats and two merchantmen.

Blaine organizes a dinner to petition supporters of Jack’s reinstatement, but the result is that he will have to solicit a pardon, which he is unwilling to do, having committed no crime. However, fate resolves what Stephen couldn’t—his father, in hiding in the north after the stock exchange fraud, is found dead, and a family friend offers Jack (a national hero after the trial, the Spartan and the Diane) his father’s seat in Parliament. In return for voting with the Navy, his reinstatement is promised within months.

Meanwhile, Stephen’s servant Padeen has become addicted to laudinum after a bad burn and impacted wisdom tooth, and has taken to stealing it from Stephen, diluding the doctor’s dose with brandy and weening him without his knowledge.

Armed with intelligence that Diana’s relationship with Jagiello is platonic, Stephen embarks for Stockholm in the Leopard, now a filthy and unhappy transport. There he buys a new supply of laudinum to replace the bottle he accidentally broke and, shortly after Diana refuses to return (she forgives him for his supposed infidelity but is through being hurt by any man), he puts himself into a coma with what used to be his regular dose, breaking his leg in a long fall.

During his convolescence, he reveals to her his connection to intelligence work and explains the true nature of his relationship with Laura Fielding. Learning the truth, and about his recently inherited fortune, she happily agrees to resume their married life and the two are picked up by the Surprise for the voyage back to England.


O’Brian’s writing is really at its strongest here. Especially worth pointing out are a few in-jokes about the series’ chronology, the stream-of-consciousness laudinum hallucination hot air balloon sequence and the introduction and repetition of a line from Figaro that foreshadows the happily-ever-after ending. (3/19/06)