21: The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey
piped up , “ Flag to Suffolk: Admiral invites Rear-Admiral and Doctor M-A-T-U-R-I-N to dinner at a quarter past three: repeat a quarter past three o'clock. ”
    “ Rear-Admiral to flag: very happy, ” said Jack in italics. Then he hurried aft to Stephen’ s point of discreet withdrawal. “ Stephen, I have engaged you to dine with the Admiral tomor row: I hope you do not mind it?”
    “ I do not mind it, my dear: and it would make not odds if I did. We are all worms under the harrow, in the service: even you, Jack, scintillating in gold lace, are but one of us. I say come, and he cometh: for I am a centurion. I have met few admirals: some high, mighty and almost certainly constipated; others small, jolly, good company: reading men , even. Besides, I long for men’ s company: the prattle of the little girls — much though I love them — drives me to an earlier and earlier breakfast, to a later and even later dinner, so that presently the two wil l meet, as they did in Avicenna’ s tale. They come to me with a pelagic crab, a starfish, a piece of common wrack, and standing b y my side they cry ‘ Oh sir, pray tell us what it is,’ so that I am tempted to utter obscene blasphemy. Oh how I long for dear Jacob’s return!”
    “I believe our dep arture depends largely on that,” said Jack gravely; and then after a pause, “ I tell you what, S tephen,” he cried, “ it is long since we had a real great-gun exercise. The last powder-hoy, for a trifle of whiskey – you know the Irish drink, Stephen, I am sure?”
    “I have never heard of it,” said Stephen.
    “ — gave us a little surplus, so that the gunner is actually at a loss to stow it: nothing could be happier. And if that does not deafen, astound and silence the little girls there is the Devil in it . I shall give orders directly. The whole shooting-match ! " Jack did not often stumble on a witticism, and this one gave him particular delight: he repeated it twice.
    The whole shooting-match it was, indeed: Suffolk might not have been called a very taut ship, nor more than ordinarily crack, but she could never have been likened to the Margate hoy; and in any case she now carried many Surprises, long used to their captain’ s ways and his rigid insistence upon very high standards indeed. The breeze being both steady and favourable Jack laid on his favourite, most profitable form of exercise, one calculated to promote zeal, speed and above all accuracy, to knit a gun-crew into an immensely cooperative whole – never a word passing, never a word called for – and to promote the most valuable sort of competition. The most experienced gun-captains and the older, wiser midshipmen were at the three forward guns; and bitter shame would fall upon any following gun that could not keep up with them in speed or accuracy.
    The first three guns had been ordered to fire high, to leave something for the rest of the broadside; and Jack, as a particular treat, silencer or gob-stopper for the little girls, had with Mr Meares the gunner contrived a flimsy but coherent structure that under very light and worn-out canvas would drift until it was abreast of the man-of -war, which would then pound it with the most rapid broadside compatible with the
    Suffolk ’ s timbers – a broadside rolling, but only just rolling.
    “ Target's away,” h ailed the foretopmast lookout. “ On deck, there, target’s away”
    “From forward aft as she bears,” called Jack; and there was a long, tense silence, broken only by the gentle wind in the rigging. The little girls, in white frocks, stood on tip-toe: just behind them Sophie and Christine, almost equally tense. The captain of Number One glared along his sights, the lanyard in his right hand, his left making very slight delicate motions to swivel or elevate the huge gun-barrel right or left, up or down a trifle. “Fire!” he cried and heaved on the lanyard: the hammer shot forward and with barely a perceptible pause the gun uttered

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