Preserved Killick, the captain's steward of the frigate "Surprise", held a soaked sheet of paper to the last of the sunlight. His face grew more than ever crabbed as he tried to puzzle out its meaning.
"What have you there?" asked Stephen Maturin, both surgeon to the ship and particular friend to Jack Aubrey, its owner and captain.
"Which its a piece of paper, writ upon in a strange hand." said Killick.
Stephen took the paper. "It must have floated from the shore. Killick is right about the hand, I can hardly read it." "Let me see." said Jack as he closed the Dollond glass with which he had been observing the French coast and reached for the paper. Years of reading sea-stained letters from Sophie fitted him well for such work. Jack and Stephen ignored Killick's muffled muttering of "Which in course I'm right." and read on.
"JA & SM to S. America in Surprise. Not a moment lost. Sunday divisions - articles of war - crossing the line. Revolt - Revolution. SM in Andes - on the Amazon - on pampas. Vampire - Sloth - Anaconda in cable tier (confused for a hawser, cable laid?). JA fever - recovery at mission - SP. Battle with Spanish. Pampero off River Plate. Old shipmate in BA. Plot by French against St Helena. French agent with bear suit suitable to bear NB away. JA & SM to St Helena - guardship squadron. Longwood. Bonaparte. SM on tyranny - JA on Admiralty - NB on Royal Navy. NB to JA "Will you kindly pass the salt." in the exact same way as HN. Return to Shelmerston. [Property of the Lilly Library]"
Jack took one more look for inspiration to the hills behind Collioure. "Here we go again." he told Stephen. "Mr Pullings, set a course for Gibraltar. There is not a moment to be lost. Coffee in my cabin in ten minutes Killick, or I'll know the reason why." The Surprise came about as the sun dipped into the sea and Jack Aubrey went below in a spirit of deep satisfaction with a broad smile on his face.
© 2000 Martin Watts