Title: The Quality of Mercy
Rating: PG (very slight language)
Pairing: Pre-slash Sparrow/Norrington
Summary: Jana's Save Norrington Challenge - Set shortly after the end of the film, Norrington and his crew are being court-martialed for the loss of the Interceptor. The penalty for negligence is death by hanging, and the Admiral's got it in for him. Fortunately, Jack still owes Norrington for one escape.
Disclaimer: (sung to "Ladies of Spain")
I own nothing owned by Michael Eisner
I own nothing owned by Bruckheimer J.,
For I've received orders to answer this challenge,
And answering challenges gets me no pay.
As if jerked by the same set of strings, Norrington and his men snapped to attention, as one of the Rear-Admiral's young gentlemen opened the door to the Priam's great cabin. Those presiding over the court-martial had already taken their places. Rear-Admiral Balfour stood next to Norrington's friend, John Laugharne. The other two gold-shouldered post-captains were Captain Rowley of the HMS Antelope and the elderly Captain Mackay of the Isis, the latter of whom squinted at him imperiously through rheumy eyes. They all wore their finest coats, and between the display of gold lace and ceremonial swords, the morning sunlight made it almost impossible to face them.
As he faced the court, Norrington keenly felt the loss of his own sword, which he had surrendered to Captain Laugharne three days earlier. Laugharne had protested that the court-martial was merely a formality, only necessary because a ship was lost. Norrington suspected otherwise, especially when he found that the Admiral had come all the way from Kingston on his hundred-gun Priam to oversee the proceedings.
Admiral Balfour was a giant of a man, notorious in his day as a flogging captain, and now that he flew his pennant at the mizzen, he had ordered more Navy men to the gallows than Norrington had pirates. Norrington recalled dining with Balfour as a junior commander in the Mediterranean, and he had been amazed by the man's violent obsession with appearances. That afternoon, Balfour had ordered a hundred lashes each for three entire gun crews and officially reprimanded the overseeing lieutenant and gunner's mate. Their crime: returning a gun salute in what Balfour described as "a lubberly way, with no sense of timing."
He turned his eye on each of them in turn- Laugharne and Rowley were dwarfed by the Admiral between them, and old Mackay was having trouble remaining erect in the light breeze from the open window.
When Mackay uttered an impatient cough, Norrington realized that the court-martial had not yet been called to order. An important member of their party had not yet appeared, and the telltale flush of irritation had already appeared on the Admiral's face.
As if sensing the disapproval of those already in their places, the judge-advocate, pinch-faced and black-robed, skulked guiltily into the room. He carried with him a towering array of books and papers.
With his usual degree of tact, Admiral Balfour barked, "Did you not hear the bell, sir? Where the hell is Larpent?" For all his attention to the discipline of others, the Admiral was supremely lax in his own mode of address.
The judge-advocate blinked owlishly at the Admiral over his spectacles, causing the midshipman's hitch in Norrington's stomach to relax infinitesimally. At least he was to be judged by a man of some decorum.
The judge-advocate ignored the Admiral's first question. "Judge-Advocate Larpent is unwell and has sent me in his stead, sir. He has personally acquainted me with this case, and you will find that I am well up to the task." His voice was reedy, and the slight tremor in his voice belied his confident words. "Now," he continued, darting a glance at Norrington, "I shall state the facts of the case."
"Oh, do get on with it," muttered Admiral Balfour. He threw himself heavily into his chair. He began fiddling with the corner of the black cap that lay on the table in front of him.
"You may all take your seats," the judge-advocate announced belatedly, taking his place next to Laugharne. He arranged his books carefully and began reading from a piece of parchment. "On the ninth of April, year of our Lord 1772, His Majesty's late ship Interceptor lay at her ropes in port-"
Norrington's eyelids fell shut during the judge-advocate's account, concealing some of the humiliation he was feeling. The short description of the poor Interceptor's fate wasn't nearly short enough, and the judge-advocate read with too much enthusiasm. He inadvertently started when he heard his name.
"-to enquire into the conduct of Commodore James Norrington, commander of His Majesty's ship-of-the-line Dauntless and the late ship Interceptor, and of her crew and officers for the loss of said ship, having been captured by the vile pirate Captain Jack Sparrow and his accomplice, both of whom received reprieves from Commodore Norrington even after the ship's magazine was detonated and the ship completely destroyed."
Unfortunately, the judge-advocate was deriving entirely too much pleasure from his recitation- so much that even Admiral Balfour glared disapprovingly during one of the dramatic pauses. The corners of Norrington's lips drew downwards. So much for decorum.
The judge-advocate then launched into a speech about the seriousness of the charges and how it was everyone's duty to consider carefully before reaching a decision. The speech would have been more effective if the judge-advocate had stopped before the anecdote recounting the gruesomely prolonged beheading of a mutinous midshipman.
Gillette and Groves were rather green around the edges. Norrington fought to keep his expression neutral.
Damn Larpent's ill health! Larpent may have been Balfour's right hand, but he could at least create the appearance of fairness and knew how to run a court-martial. The man currently making a mockery of things was either incompetent, daft or both. Norrington wasn't sure which was less desirable- to have his court-martial overseen by an ineffectual civilian or a bellicose Admiral. Fortunately, the former seemed to have run out of steam or inappropriate stories and gestured grandly at Admiral Balfour.
With a last frown at the judge-advocate, Balfour cleared his throat and faced the officers formerly of the Interceptor. "Commodore Norrington, if you would relate the events of April 9?"
Norrington squared his shoulders. "At approximately eleven o'clock in the morning, Lieutenant Groves and I were overseeing an exhaustive refit of the Interceptor, as the pirate ship Black Pearl had staged an attack on Port Royal the evening before. At this time, we heard Lieutenant Gillette, who had been put in charge of overseeing repair of the Dauntless's rigging, hail us from one of her boats. The Dauntless had been taken. After observing through my glass that only two men were attempting to commandeer a 98-gun ship, I determined that we could reach her in the Interceptor well before they could do too much damage to the rigging.
"When we pulled alongside the Dauntless, Lieutenant Groves, a handful of Marines, the dockhands and I boarded with the intent of finding the two men. Having ordered all within earshot to search the ship, I heard a loud splash behind me, which I discovered was the sound of our gangways falling into the water as the Interceptor sailed away. I immediately ordered the men back to the ship, but in spite of an heroic effort by a dockhand called Dennis, it was too late to regain the ship. The Marines opened fire with their long muskets, but the pirates hid themselves within the sheets and cordage. When Lieutenant Groves pointed out that the winds were not in our favour, I attempted to bring the Dauntless about to cripple the Interceptor with our great guns, but the Dauntless's rudder chain had been disabled. Our deck swivels and bowchasers lacked the power to do any significant damage. The Interceptor was taken despite our best efforts.
"I heard later that the Interceptor had been blown up by the crew of the Black Pearl, after a chase. I, of course, was not present and can give no evidence on the subject."
He pursed his lips to signal the end of his recitation. If the others wanted to hear about the governor's daughter and the cursed gold they would bally well have to ask.
The judge-advocate raised a hand, about to announce that the cross-examination should begin, but Balfour jumped in.
"Commodore Norrington," Balfour looked down at him with great scorn. "Surely you would have left some men behind on the Interceptor."
"I assure you that it would never have been in question if we had been at sea or had any sort of regular crew. As it was, over half of my crew were injured during the previous night's attack. Apart from the Dauntless's second lieutenant, none of the others had served at sea, much less knew anything about performing special operations on a ship of the line."
Mackay began coughing noisily. Even Laugharne appeared surprised at the estimate of casualties. "Half your crew were injured in the attack? "
Norrington nodded. "The Interceptor's crew were a hundred twenty-seven. Only fifty-three were fit to serve the next day, and two-thirds of that number were not present."
"Why weren't they present?" Captain Mackay seemed to have recovered his wind.
"They were rebuilding houses that were damaged in the attack, sir. Furthermore, we had enough men to repair the ships."
"Though apparently not enough to do so in a secure manner," the Admiral grumbled. "And what I don't understand is why they all followed you aboard the Dauntless like ducklings."
Perhaps the purse offered by the East India Company for the capture of any branded pirate? It was probable, but hardly the thing to point out in such circumstances. "I can only credit great fervour to do their duty, sir," he replied, sounding lame even to his own ears.
"Have you any complaints about the conduct of your officers, Commodore?" That was dear Laugharne, attempting to stick to the traditional questions.
Norrington could hear Gillette nervously cracking his knuckles from somewhere to his left. "No, sir."
"You can't be serious," protested Captain Rowlings. "Lieutenant Gillette allowed the Dauntless to be taken by two men!"
Norrington pursed his lips, feeling his righteous indignation stir beneath his impartial facade. "Lieutenant Gillette did what I daresay any of us would have done with a pistol aimed at his head. Knowing that two men could not possibly crew the Dauntless, he left her behind to avoid bloodshed. The crux of the problem was that all of us sorely underestimated the ingenuity of Jack Sparrow. I cannot let Lieutenant Gillette take the blame for a fault that was all of ours. Sir."
He saw Gillette relax infinitesimally out of the corner of his eye. The judge-advocate cleared his throat.
"Captain Rowlings," said the Admiral sternly, "You will have an opportunity to question Lieutenant Gillette later. I would advise you to limit your questions to the Commodore to his own intentions and actions, not those of his crew."
A loaded statement if ever one was uttered. The corner of Norrington's mouth rose imperceptibly. At least he knew that Balfour was after his own blood and not that of his officers.
"Commodore," said Rowlings with a nasty emphasis on the title, "In your opinion, who do you feel is most at fault for the loss of the Interceptor?"
It was an unnecessarily divisive question, and decidedly out of line. Rowlings was a few years older than Norrington, but Norrington had hoisted a Commodore's broad pennant both in the East and West Indies, whereas Rowlings had never even commanded so much as a third-rate ship of the line. Having heard tales of Rowlings's humiliating brush with Jack Sparrow, he was surprised to encounter such animosity. He had never suspected Rowlings could possibly be jealous.
Norrington fixed Rowlings in his most imperious glare. "Those who blew her up, sir, namely the crew of the Pirate Captain Barbossa, all of whom are now either dead by the sword or awaiting execution by hanging." That was the only satisfying part of the whole affair- dispatching the foulest crew of reprobates he had ever the displeasure of encountering.
Rowlings's face flushed a dark red at the reply, but to Norrington's surprise, Admiral Balfour held up a hand.
"Captain Rowlings, I think we've heard more than enough." Balfour shot a glare at the judge-advocate. "Unless you have any questions to ask of the Commodore." It was not a question.
Cowed, the judge-advocate swallowed hard and shook his head.
"Good. Norrington, you are excused. First Lieutenant Gillette, stand forward."
With the slightest bow allowed to those presiding, Norrington returned to his place next to Lieutenant Groves.
Balfour glared at him. "You were excused, Norrington."
It was preposterous that he should not witness his men's testimony- a complete breach of protocol! Taken aback, Norrington tried to meet the judge-advocate's eye, but the man was bent over one of his books.
Gathering what remained of his dignity, Norrington escaped to the Priam's poop deck, where he peered out at the azure waters of Port Royal harbour. The Dauntless was there, looking fair as ever, and he could make out dozens of men in her rigging, fitting her for her next voyage, wherever that was to be. He very much doubted he would be with her.
Losing this particular command would not be so great a disappointment. Governor Swann, as kind and fair as he was, was far too fond of organizing military pageants for the sake of the citizens of Port Royal. Norrington privately suspected that Swann had arranged his over-lavish "promotion" ceremony solely to impress his headstrong daughter. Since his painfully proper pursuit of Miss Swann and the burdensome command had both been ended in one fell swoop by the name of Sparrow, he did not lament the loss of either. He certainly wouldn't miss all the blasted paperwork. And in retrospect, his earnest shipmates were certainly safer company than the Machiavellian lady who had sent him and his men into the embrace of unkillable pirates.
No, he was far happier in sea than at port, and as fine as the Dauntless was, he occasionally felt lost in her. To have command of a single light frigate, or even a brig, would make him very happy indeed. He desired a ship light and fast; with a deceptively shallow draft and the ability to carry enough canvas to take even the Black Pearl herself. Perhaps the Terpsichore, or the Gwendolyn, for all that he was technically too senior to captain her.
In the midst of these happier thoughts, the weeklong headache that had plagued him lifted. Let Balfour bellow until doomsday. He did not fear the spectre of execution.
This was partially because he had long ago accepted that death was ever present in the military, and partially because he sincerely doubted that his offences were worthy of execution. Balfour was keen enough to hang a commodore, but he was also the only officer in the Caribbean who had not yet encountered Jack Sparrow. Even with Balfour trampling on the proceedings, anyone who had met the rogue could not possibly find fault with Norrington's conduct.
Sparrow had an incredible gift for playing the fool, and nearly every officer who came into his presence had been taken in on some level. Then, without warning, the officer would realize that he was without a ship, or without a pair of breeches in the case of Captain Rowlings. He suspected that Rowlings's ire was due in part to the fact that Norrington had essentially let Sparrow go free.
Norrington's primary concern was for his officers. Groves, his second lieutenant, had no family, wealth, or influence, so his fortune was dependent on the whims of the Admiralty. Poor Gillette might never receive his commander's epaulette without a flawless record, and Norrington had to admit that Gillette, on the surface, appeared the most culpable for the loss of the ship. Fortunately, Balfour seemed to have taken exception to himself, rather than his officers.
As the minutes passed, his officers joined him at the taffrail. Gillette caught his eye, looking somewhat haggard. Norrington was confident that Gillette had been able to hold his own, even against a rhinoceros like Balfour or weasel like Rowlings.
A comfortable silence descended, and Norrington felt his thoughts return to the change of his fortune, the day that Jack Sparrow appeared in Port Royal.
Despite appearances to the contrary, Norrington bore the indirect cause of his trouble no particular ill feeling. He hadn't gone looking for the Black Pearl after Sparrow's escape, and Sparrow had henceforth given the entire island of Jamaica a very wide berth. One good turn deserved another, and Norrington still not quite sure who, if either of them, was beholden to whom.
A throat behind him cleared, and he turned to find Mr. Dennis, the heroic dockhand, clutching his straw hat in both fists. The normally boisterous man was oddly subdued.
Norrington raised an eyebrow. "Mr. Dennis, are you quite all right?"
"Beggin' yer pardon, sir," he said, hastily saluting, "but I was hoping that one of you would be so kind as to tell me wife I love her 'fore they run me up the yard."
This startled a laugh out of Gillette. "My dear man, you can't possibly think the court could find fault with your conduct. Naval courts do not hang dock workers whose only crime was to make the best of a bad situation."
Dennis appeared unconvinced. "Wi' due respect, sir, you wasn't there. When that fat old cove, beggin' pardon, that is, the Admiral - was harping about how I laid the boards a'tweenships, that bloke with the glasses, the one in black, he winked at me. I lost me story completely."
Norrington blinked. "Surely he just had something in his eye."
Dennis shook his head, "No sir. I've been to Singapore an' back, an' that were a wink, sir."
Groves was clearly baffled. "Mr. Dennis, can you please explain the significance of the wink?"
"Well, it's like in the Bible, innit?" wailed Dennis. "The betrayer betrayed wi' a kiss, and now I'll be sent to the noose on account of a wink."
Groves, ever soft-hearted, placed a comforting hand on Dennis's shoulder. "Really, Mr. Dennis, I don't think you have anything to be worried about."
Dennis lowered his eyes. "If any of them blue-coats saw it, they'll hang me for buggery. Pardon."
Norrington turned his back on Groves's attempt to comfort the sobbing dockhand with a tiny smile. It quickly faded.
Gillette stood next to Norrington, eyes on the Dauntless. "I should tell you sir, I blamed myself."
Norrington turned on him with dismay. "Lieutenant, you cannot be serious. Why on earth should you do such a thing?"
Gillette pursed his lips and shook his head. "Sir, after all that you've done for me, I couldn't see you hanged. I couldn't. My conscience would not allow it."
"I am doomed to be surrounded by misguided martyrs," said Norrington dryly. "Gillette, they couldn't possibly hang me. I didn't desert or kill anyone, so the very worst they could do is move me to a lesser ship. Besides, I am not entirely without friends in the Admiralty."
"But the Admiral never stopped badgering me for evidence to convict you, sir!" cried Gillette. "The judge-advocate was no better. I felt his gaze tearing through me. I would have confessed to sinking the Interceptor myself if I thought it would have helped you, sir!"
"Lieutenant, calm yourself!" Norrington ordered sharply.
Gillette's face crumpled, but he made a supreme effort to collect himself. "When Admiral Balfour reminded the judge-advocate that the penalty for negligence was death, whether it be for seaman or Admiral, their gazes locked. It was as if they'd reached the perfect understanding. It was then that I realized that the Rear-Admiral means to see you hanged, and I couldn't let that happen."
Gillette's voice faded to a whisper as he stared out over the harbour.
"Lieutenant, I am humbled, but I assure you that if anything should happen to me, you did everything within your power to stop it."
Gillette nodded gravely. "Thank you, sir."
Norrington clapped his arm. "You're a good man, Andrew, and a fine officer. I should be most grieved to lose you." His grip tightened. "But you must promise to never sacrifice yourself for another, not even me."
"I'll promise if you will, sir." Gillette pursed his lips and looked straight ahead, and he would not meet Norrington's eye.
Norrington nodded, for this was as close as Gillette would come to acceptance. He turned from his first lieutenant and spied his second lieutenant watching the trickling sand in the ship's half-hour glass.
He made his way down the steps to the quarterdeck. "You are well, Lieutenant?"
"Yes, thank you, Commodore. I was just thinking."
Norrington felt a smile lift the corner of his mouth. "Not about our pusillanimous judge-advocate, I trust?'
Groves smiled. "Odd that you should say so, Commodore, for you have put your finger into the centre of my contemplation."
Norrington sighed. He was growing decidedly tired of the judge-advocate. "Do tell."
"Well, it was the oddest thing, sir," said Groves. "It was as if we all faced separate men. He was fairly licking the Rear-Admiral's boots when you testified, but he frightened poor Dennis out of his wits. He was hard as flint for Gillette, and I could read nothing of his thoughts when I spoke. I hardly know what to think."
"I should think that if he were in Balfour's pocket, as Larpent is, we should have a great deal more to worry about. As things are, I doubt that a man so weak-willed and inexperienced in Naval justice could possibly order so much as fifty lashes for Dennis, had he been a mutinous, neglectful deserter."
Groves shook his head. "I have the oddest feeling, sir."
Norrington shook his head. "Do not let yourself think too hard on it, Lieutenant. You should have at least one gold epaulette before you have headaches that rival mine."
Groves smiled again, but his gaze never left the hourglass.
To pass the time, Norrington began a cursory examination of the Priam, noting with some satisfaction that the mizzen clews were disgracefully slack. However, this respite was over far too soon. The young gentleman reappeared and ushered them all back into the Admiral's great cabin.
When they had all assembled, Admiral Balfour nodded enthusiastically at the judge-advocate, who swallowed hard.
"Commodore Norrington," he said, voice breaking on the second syllable of the surname, "have you anything to say before the court delivers its verdict?"
Norrington drew his brows together. "Though I regret the loss of His Majesty's Interceptor, I cannot possibly assign blame for her loss to anyone other than those who took her, unless it is to me, for failing to take into account the genius of our quarry."
Gillette had scarcely opened his mouth to protest when Norrington sent a quelling look his way. The fool, didn't he realize how much he had to lose?
Norrington turned his attention back to those presiding, and was shocked to see that Laugharne's face was ashen.
His eyes darted from Mackay to Rowlings, and neither of them would meet his eye. Balfour, the blackguard, was still fiddling with the black cap in front of him, and the judge-advocate was staring at the pile of books in front of him.
Surely they didn't mean...they couldn't. It would be unthinkable- unconscionable even.
Balfour handed the black cap to the judge-advocate in an obvious gesture for him to continue.
"This is a joke. You cannot be seriously considering-"
"Silence, Norrington! You spoke your piece." The Admiral had a malicious gleam in his eye.
"If I may," the judge-advocate took the cap distastefully and placed it on the table. "Before I deliver the verdict of this court, I should like to say a few things on the quality of mercy."
"To blazes with mercy," declared Balfour. "He's negligent and incompetent and should be made an example of!"
"Hear, hear," muttered Rowlings.
Mackay appeared to have fallen asleep, but grunted in assent when Rowlings elbowed him.
"But sir-" Laugharne stammered.
Balfour interrupted with greater volume. "Let the sentence be read now before I run you all up the yard along with him!"
Even Rowlings looked shaken at that.
But the judge-advocate turned to Admiral Balfour with surprising vehemence. "My dear Admiral, mercy shall certainly not go to blazes. Mercy is all that we poor wretches can ever hope for. Consider, sir, that in the course of Divine justice, no man should ever see salvation. Our own prayers for mercy should teach us all to show mercy to our fellow men."
To say that Norrington was somewhat surprised by this speech would be like saying that attempting the windward passage was somewhat dangerous. Furthermore, Norrington didn't care for surprises. He regarded the judge-advocate with new suspicion.
The judge-advocate strode from behind the table and faced each of the presiding officers calmly in turn. "If none of you can find the wellspring of mercy within yourselves, then all of us in this room are damned. For if we do not show mercy to the Commodore, God forbid that same judgement should ever be visited upon us."
Balfour, whose face had gone an interesting shade of currant, bellowed, "I have reached the limit of my patience! None of the senior captains you see before you has lost so much as a length of cable to this Jack Sparrow, nor are any of us likely to."
Captain Rowlings shifted nervously in his chair, but did not speak.
"These captains, might I remind you, were commanding their own vessels in while Norrington here was still a snivelling midshipman. This is not a case in which mercy has a place, this is a case in which a pirate has repeatedly made a fool of His Majesty's Navy, and I, for one, will not tolerate it! Someone must pay, and a commanding officer bears ultimate responsibility for his ship!"
"But Admiral," said the judge-advocate softly, "have you yourself never made a mistake of judgement that resulted in the loss of something important to you?"
"The day a pirate ever gets the better of me on my own ship is the day I hand over my sword. However, that is as likely to happen as you are likely to succeed in your own law practice."
Rowlings turned a snicker into a cough.
The judge-advocate shrugged. "'S your funeral."
At these words, Norrington knew. In that instant, he guessed the identity of the judge-advocate and guessed what was about to happen. In short, he was furious. If he was to win his freedom, it should be done properly and legally. He narrowed his eyes.
"You are, without a doubt, the worst judge-advocate I've ever seen." His words rang out, clear but incongruous to all but Groves and Gillette, whose jaws fell open simultaneously.
"You're right there, mate," the judge-advocate agreed heartily, voice falling an octave and a half, "so I guess there's nothing left for me but a life of crime. It's a shame, really. Dear old mum will never recover from the blow."
With a dramatic flourish, the judge-advocate quickly drew the Admiral's sword from its sheath, snagged his elaborate powdered wig on the tip, flipped it into the air, and caught it deftly in his other hand. Balfour's jaw worked in dumb amazement as the judge-advocate then threw off his own wig, releasing a cascade of bauble-bedecked locks. Even clean-shaven and without his trademark kohl, there was no mistaking the man.
"Sparrow." Norrington's voice was tight. Laugharne drew his own sword and pointed it directly at the pirate's throat.
"Captain Sparrow," he corrected, pulling off his robe to reveal an elaborately embroidered pair of breeches that Rowlings recognized with a squeak of outrage. "I do thank you, Admiral, for a charming afternoon. And congratulations on your retirement." He eyed Laugharne's sword warily and edged back against the wall of the great cabin. "I'd stay to help celebrate, o'course, but I'm off to London to look at the Queen, frighten little mice, that sort of thing. And so Admiral and gentlemen, let this be remembered as the day you never even came close to catching Captain Jack Sparrow."
"Don't just stand there, you idiots!" The Admiral seemed to have regained his powers of speech. "Marines! All hands to the great cabin!"
Laugharne lunged, but he was too late. Sparrow had shoved the Admiral's sword into his own belt and dived out the window, wig fluttering in the breeze until he hit the water and disappeared.
In response to the Admiral's summons, a detachment of Marines followed closely by a large group of seamen crowded into the cabin, each trying to suppress indecorous snorts of laughter at the sight of the Admiral's livid face and bald pate.
The profusion of men pressed Norrington against the windows, and he somehow ended up between Gillette and Groves. While Balfour was roaring at the top of his not-unimpressive voice to clear the room, the three of them all searched the sea far below for signs of Sparrow. There were none to be found. It was as if the man had turned into a fish and swum away.
As the Marines began shooting futilely at the water where Sparrow had disappeared, Norrington allowed himself a rueful smile. "He may not have a much of a law career ahead of him, but that's got to be the best pirate I've ever seen."
His lieutenants' snorts were lost in the din. Groves recovered first. "So it would seem."
Apologies to Shakespeare, whose Merchant of Venice was generally abused and paraphrased beyond recognition. Many thanks to the late great Patrick O'Brian, without whose sea tales I would have been bearingless.
Many thanks to Jan McNeville and M'cha Araem, whose reviews have already spurred a quick edit or two :D