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Speed and Steam in the Twilight

The Bristol Channel, 1838

"I don't care wot 'is Lordship says, I don't like it."

The old seaman laid his claypipe on the table and watched in disgust as it jumped off to smash on the teak deck.

"There y'ar. Ship shakes worse nor a bloody 'orse at Hascot. Steam ain't natural, and that's all to be said on it."

"You may have the right of it, old shipmate, but you must admit she turns a fair rate of knots, as we sailors say. We'll be in New York in 15 days Mr Brunel tells me, if the Admiral allows her trials."

"Lor' Doctor, don't you be a-listenin' to that there hengineer. 'e may be Pompey born, but 'e's no sailor and 'is dad's a Frenchie. I wonders 'is Lordship abides 'im. Clever chap no doubt of it, but too clever if you smokes me drift."

"Now then Killick you scurvy lubber, stow that. Mr Brunel will be our guest ashore this evening, so mind your manners or it'll be skilly and water for you."

"Ah, Jack, come in, come in. Your inspection is complete, I trust? All's well by your grossly self-satisfied demeanour."

"Yes Doctor, we're ready for sea. The Great Western is a fine ship. She'll catch the world by its ears, I put my hand on it."

"Excellent, my dear. Sure it's the great adventure of the world. My colleagues at the Institution will be gratifyingly surprised. You know we said it could not be done - to move a ship by hot water, so. The esteemed Killick was saying as much before you so peremptorily entered my room, or cabin as we sailors say, without knocking I may add."

"Ah, harrumph, uh yes, sorry about that Doctor, old habits y'know. Yes, some small-minded people doubted him, it's a great undertaking and darned difficult. But I never did, of course. Brunel is the man of the moment. Brilliant, tough and a hard task-master. Puts me in mind of Corbett in the old Nereide, thirty-six, at the Cape in '08. You recall the flogging of Bonden, of course, God rest him. Puts me in mind of that hot-head Henry Hotham. Now when we was both going for First Lord in '28, or was it '29…."

To forestall another of his old friend's rambling reminiscences, Stephen Maturin picked up the copy of "The Times". Turning over to the first news page he handed the three-day-old newspaper to Aubrey.

"The Duke is making his mark again. He advocates using this lovely ship to bring wheat from America to relieve the famine in Ireland."

"Yes, you Irishmen look out for yourselves, to be sure. But you can't break the Corn Laws or we'll have anarchy. Still, Wellington makes a good point. The Great Western could certainly carry coal enough to make the trip and still room for a hold full of grain to pay for the voyage. You Royal Society fellows scorned us, but once he listened to me, Brunel proved them wrong. You recall the occasion, of course, Stephen, or should I say the equation, hah, hah. In a ship, d'you see, the load space is the cube of its dimensions while the propulsion needed to push it through the oggin is merely the square. Now, when Savannah sailed over in '19, or was it …"

The good Doctor sighed and surreptitiously unplugged his hearing horn. Modern inventions were all very well, he mused, but age hath its recompense.

© 1998 Jay Reay