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After the Nile

Three bells in the morning watch, and a black, star-flecked sky, softening slightly east by northeast, where a pale orange glow washed out the lowest stars.The elderly 50-gun frigate Leander, making three knots in a northerly breeze, the larboard tacks aboard. The officer of the watch, Lieutenant Jack Aubrey, holding his perch atop the lee rail, one hand in the main shrouds, gazing quietly towards the Palestinian coast. For the third fortnight running the Leander was in station blockading Acre, in support of Djezzar Pasha as he held the line against Napoleon's push into Syria.

"That wicked old pagan will give Boney a run for his money," Jack remembered Parsons, the ship's purser, saying. "Those walls have stood up to worse poundings than they are likely to get this time!" Jack had no doubt that the Turk would show a right tenacious spirit, the more so now that Smith had captured Buonaparte's siege train. As for the historical precedent, he had to allow that Parsons had the advantage of him.

Although but an indifferent officer, the purser was uncommon learned for a naval man, which fact had become apparent to the ship's company in the weeks since 1 August. Normally cold and diffident, Parsons had loosened sensibly since the momentous day at Aboukir Bay. Jack had supposed this the result of the victory and subsequent release of nervous tension, or simply the warmth that the entire quarterdeck felt, basking in the reflected glory of Nelson. Whatever the reason, the purser--whom none would ever have mistaken for a seaman--now apparently found himself in his element. For days he had filled Jack's ears--and those of anyone either too well-mannered, or too unfortunate, not to have duties elsewhere--with tales inspired by their surroundings: the adventures of Alexander and other classical coves; Ptolemy and the Battle of Raphia; the wanderings of the Israelites; Caesar and Pompey; treachery, death at Carrhae; amphorae, how transported; frankincense, myrrh, sources and properties of. Had continued his lectures as the frigate skirted the Syrian coast to the rendezvous at Acre. Had kept it up even as she glided in among the dhows, the feluccas, the nondescript vessels to her daytime station, just out of gunshot of the greying Crusader fortress and its weathered sea wall.

Reflected glory indeed, and a more relaxed mood; a lighter feeling among the ship's company. Not a hilarity, nor yet a sense, as who should say, of joy; but a general lifting of burdens. Yet in the days following the Nile victory Jack had been visited, from time to time, by the same gloom he had experienced after other battles. And this gloom, far from being dispelled by the magnitude of the victory, seemed to linger longer in proportion to the great moment of the occasion. Jack had a profound confidence in the Navy, and he counted on being recognized, if not rewarded with any excessive generosity, for his part at Aboukir. Yet along with that confidence he was still haunted by the memory of that savage action, the death-dealing by which the expected kudos had been earned. Jack was no born meditative; yet the wanton destruction of life put him into a brown study: all the more so in the quiet times when, as the ranking officer on deck, he could assume an air of authority and a self-imposed, if only nominal, isolation.

Such was the case now; such it had been on the day when they first drew near the coast at Gaza. At that time Parsons, mistaking Jack's quiet mood for a sort of dull piety, sidled up to him. "It's a dark and sanguinous territory there, Holy Land though it be," he murmured. "The hand of the bloody Turk has lain heavily on it these five hundred years and more. Although, to be sure, we had our day--paid 'em back in their own coin, we did!' With a minimum of prompting it emerged that the purser's grimly satisfied tone referred to that hallowed moment--the extraordinarily vicious assault on Jerusalem by the knights of the First Crusade. 'Yea, the blood of the pagans ran in the streets--up to the very bellies of the horses! And it was no more than they deserved.

"No, Aubrey, I cannot in all conscience say that this current alliance with the Turk does us any credit." Despite his knowledge of ancient history, Parsons--a clerk at heart--was deeply ignorant of the world beyond the Channel. As a logical consequence he had very firmly held opinions about that world--in particular, on the advisability of forming an alliance against one's current deadly enemy with an "alien" and inimical race. "Can never trust those turban-headed types . . . all Salaams and Bismillahs . . . they're all the same, you know; from Hyderabad to the Atlas," thus neatly summing up a population of several millions, bridging two continents and spanning sixty-five degrees of longitude. "Not a ha'penny's worth of difference between 'em. They don't think like us; Djezzar, like as not, would stab us in the back as easy as kiss my hand."

"Well, politics makes a strange bed . . . but we're doomed to lie in it just the same, hey?" Jack had replied in an attempt at humour.

"What's that? Er, yes, I daresay," Parsons said. "But, however, we'd bleeding well better watch our step. They're savages . . . nothing like our civilized notions of how to do things. It makes you shudder, to think of so many dying at the blade of the scimitar!"

It did indeed make one shudder. And now, alone again in the quiet of the earliest morning, Jack pondered it, with the hellish sound of the L'Orient's explosion--500 souls, gone in a flash--still ringing in his ears.

Another glass, another heave of the log, and they would wear; one last southward reach before standing in. Jack shifted his considerable bulk; moving with the roll, he stepped smartly off the rail and made his way aft to the quarterdeck. "G'morning, sir," said a deckhand, pulling his forelock and stepping aside to let the officer pass. Then, looking up: "Lord bless us, what a red moon." Off the starboard bow rose a thin, sharp crescent: the color of pumpkin gone bad, it touched the dark Levantine sea with a baleful glint . . . and Buonaparte's guns began to pound the ancient walls of Acre.

© 2001 Ms. N. Maste