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Captain pro tem (3)

The same pilot had returned and so too his soliloquy of unwise ships' masters arriving or departing Gibraltar, the difference weighed between the cost of a ship and a pilot's fee (his hands leaving the wheel to illustrate), and the obligatory demise of these ships of inopportune thrift, stories chock full of gore. Though competent, the pilot added a resentment of the young to his habit of tiresome and transparent manipulation and, with the heavy presence of the ship's real captain now gone and having been but briefly introduced at the ship's arrival to the then first officer now young captain pro tem (but "captain" only by courtesy - a mere commander in fact as his single epaulette signified both in number and place), his tirade reached a very high pitch indeed. All the men were too much taken up in reflexion of the captain's sudden departure to pay the pilot much heed, however. That the departure from Her Majesty's Hired Vessel Surprise and her hemi-demi-semi- official mission to protect English whalers in the South Pacific by both the ship's captain Jack Aubrey and her surgeon Stephen Maturin was taken so universally as a good sign by the crew showed an exceptionally high degree of loyalty, and closeness. To be sure they were sad to see the captain depart (and perhaps his luck!) on the eve of long, arduous journey; a circumnavigation, in fact. But, all knew that only business of the most urgent and so official nature could draw him away and that this could mean only one thing: restoration to the list of post-captains. Their awareness of justice delayed now arriving was great. It was with a further example of their loyalty that in a collective effort of forbearance not one man dared speak of this for fear of somehow angering Fate, of displaying confidence at the righteous outcome.

One man shared their feelings perfectly despite the eminence of his position now as their new commander. He was unaware of the remarkable nature of this ability, though he understood it is value and nature through and through. It cannot be said the young man considered himself to be remarkable at all. He took this connection with the crew for granted. Perhaps this fellow-feeling arose from the shared experience of serving under such a presence like Captain Aubrey, all of them together subject to the same tremendous authority; melting differences, uniting under the common cause of command. Whatever the cause, the rapport was an integral part of his ease as a commander and, in the course of things, the merits of this man were often overlooked - so natural and convenient did his abilities as a sailor and leader manifest themselves. The plain fact was that he was both competent and modest. His background accounted for it, to a high degree, but not all. There was an accompanying stubbornness too to sacrifice forthright nature of his youth for mere vanity. He had always been so completely happy in his work: to be at work, to be with others competent like himself and fully engaged in an enterprise, to be ever-plodding towards advancement (plodding though possessed of a combination of outstanding abilities, exemplary record, and the essential patronage of his Captain). Though feeling a tinge of the tropical heat today in a scarred face he sometimes regretted, he was quite flushed with pride from his still rather recent promotion. Looking at him now someone might easily suppose that he was trying to look like his mentor, the caster of the shadow that might so eclipse any man stepping into this place. And, as he took the air in the same place as Captain Aubrey (for while in his yeoman-like zeal to avoid as he put it "putting on airs" he continued to mess with the men in the gunroom, he now walked the holy quarterdeck), he smiled secretly to himself. Feeling that he was being watched with a sense that all self-conscious men feel, he turned and saw that it was the Reverend Nathaniel Martin looking at him with his one good eye and, as the ship heeled obeying the pilot's commands and the two men swayed and steadied themselves on the undulating deck, he felt they two shared a secret. He returned the impish nod of the ship's assistant surgeon (now surgeon pro tem) and, despite his inborn modesty and a positive dread of anything approaching vanity, as the Surprise turned heading out to sea he felt a warm glow, a contained delight that the entire world lay before him and his command, and that this might be the beginning of an adventure of Captain Tom Pullings.

© 2000 Anthony Patton