Master and Commander
The music-room in the Governor's House at Port Mahon, a tall, handsome, pillared octagon, was filled with the triumphant first movement of Locatelli's C major quartet. The players, Italians pinned against the far wall by rows and rows of little round gilt chairs, were playing with passionate conviction as they mounted towards the penultimate crescendo, towards the tremendous pause and the deep, liberating final chord. And on the little gilt chairs at least some of the audience were following the rise with an equal intensity: there were two in the third row, on the left-hand side; and they happened to be sitting next to one another. The listener farther to the left was a man of between twenty and thirty whose big form overflowed his seat, leaving only a streak of gilt wood to be seen here and there. He was wearing his best uniform - the white-lapelled blue coat, white waistcoat, breeches and stockings of a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, with the silver medal of the Nile in his buttonhole -and the deep white cuff of his gold-buttoned sleeve beat the time, while his bright blue eyes, staring from what would have been a pink-and-white face if it had not been so deeply tanned, gazed fixedly at the bow of the first violin. The high note came, the pause, the resolution; and with the resolution the sailor's fist swept firmly down upon his knee. He leant back in his chair, extinguishing it entirely, sighed happily and turned towards his neighbour with a smile. The words 'Very finely played, sir, I believe' were formed in his gullet if not quite in his mouth when he caught the cold and indeed inimical look and heard the whisper, 'If you really must beat the measure, sir, let me entreat you to do so in time,and not half a beat ahead.'
Jack Aubrey's face instantly changed from friendly ingenuous communicative pleasure to an expression of somewhat baffled hostility: he could not but acknowledge that he had been beating the time; and although he had certainly done so with perfect accuracy, in itself the thing was wrong. His colour mounted; he fixed his neighbour's pale eye for a moment, said, 'I trust. . . ',and the opening notes of the slow movement cut him short.
The ruminative 'cello uttered two phrases of its own and then began a dialogue with the viola. Only part of Jack's mind paid attention, for the rest of it was anchored to the man at his side. A covert glance showed that he was a small, dark, white-faced creature in a rusty black coat - a civilian. It was difficult to tell his age, for not only had he that kind of face that does not give anything away, but he was wearing a wig, a grizzled wig, apparently made of wire, and quite devoid of powder: he might have been anything between twenty and sixty. 'About my own age, in fact, however,' thought Jack. 'The ill-looking son of a bitch, to give himself such airs.' With this almost the whole of his attention went back into the music; he found his place in the pattern and followed it through its convolutions and quite charming arabesques to its satisfying, logical conclusion. He did not think of his neighbour again until the end of the movement, and then he avoided looking in his direction.
The minuet set Jack's head wagging with its insistent beat, but he was wholly unconscious of it; and when he felt his hand stirring on his breeches and threatening to take to the air he thrust it under the crook of his knee. It was a witty, agreeable minuet, no more; but it was succeeded by a curiously difficult, almost harsh last movement, a piece that seemed to be on the edge of saying something of the very greatest importance. The volume of sound died away to the single whispering of a fiddle, and the steady hum of low conversation that had never stopped at the back of the room threatened to drown it: a soldier exploded in a stifled guffaw and Jack looked angrily round. Then the rest of the quartet joined the fiddle and all of them worked back to the point from which the statement might arise: it was essential to get straight back into the current, so as the 'cello came in with its predictable and necessary contribution of pom, pom-pom-pom, poom, Jack's chin sank upon his breast and in unison with the 'cello he went pom, pom-pom-pom, poom. An elbow drove into his ribs and the sound shshsh hissed in his ear. He found that his hand was high in the air, beating time; he lowered it, clenched his mouth shut and looked down at his feet until the music was over. He heard the noble conclusion and recognized that it was far beyond the straightforward winding-up that he had foreseen, but he could take no pleasure in it. In the applause and general din his neighbour looked at him, not so much with defiance as with total, heart-felt disapprobation: they did not speak, but sat in rigid awareness of one another while Mrs Harte, the commandant's wife, went through a long and technically difficult piece on her harp. Jack Aubrey looked out of the long, elegant windows into the night: Saturn was rising in the south-south-east, a glowing ball in the Minorcan sky. A nudge, a thrust of that kind, so vicious and deliberate, was very like a blow. Neither his personal temper nor his professional code could patiently suffer an affront: and what affront was graver than a blow?
As it could not for the moment find any outward expression, his anger took on the form of melancholy: he thought of his shipless state, of half and whole promises made to him and broken, and of the many schemes he had built up on visionary foundations. He owed his prize-agent, his man of business, a hundred and twenty pounds; and its interest of fifteen per cent was about to fall due; and his pay was five pounds twelve shillings a month. He thought of men he knew, junior to him but with better luck or better interest, who were now lieutenants in command of brigs or cutters, or who had even been promoted master and commander: and all of them snapping up trabacaloes in the Adriatic, tartans in the Gulf Of Lions, xebecs and settees along the whole of the Spanish coast. Glory, professional advancement, prize-money.
The storm of applause told him that the performance was over, and he beat his palms industriously, stretching his mouth into an expression of rapturous delight. Molly Harte curtseyed and smiled, caught his eye and smiled again; he clapped louder; but she saw that he was either not pleased or that he had not been attending, and her pleasure was sensibly diminished. However, she continued to acknowledge the compliments of her audience with a radiant smile, looking very well in pale blue satin and a great double rope of pearls - pearls from the Santa Brigida.
Jack Aubrey and his neighbour in the rusty black coat stood up at the same time, and they looked at one another:
Jack let his face return to its expression of cold dislike- the dying remnants of his artificial rapture were peculiarly disagreeable, as they faded - and in a low voice he said, 'My name is Aubrey, sir: I am staying at the Crown.'
'Mine, sir, is Maturin. I am to be found any morning at Joselito's coffee-house. May I beg you to stand aside?'
For a moment Jack felt the strongest inclination to snatch up his little gilt chair and beat the white-faced man down with it; but he gave way with a tolerable show of civility - he had no choice, unless he was to be run into - and shortly afterwards he worked through the crowd of tight-packed blue or red coats with the occasional civilian black as far as the circle round Mrs Harte, called out 'Charming- capital - beautifully played' over heads three deep, waved his hand and left the room. As he went through the hail he exchanged greetings with two other sea-officers, one of them a former messmate in the gun-room of the Agamemnon, who said, 'You are looking very hipped, Jack,' and with a tall midshipman, stiff with the sense of occasion and the rigour of his starched, frilled shirt, who had been a youngster in his watch in the Thunderer; and lastly he bowed to the commandant's secretary, who returned his bow with a smile, raised eyebrows and a very significant look.
'I wonder what that infamous brute has been up to now,' thought Jack, walking down towards the harbour. As he walked memories of the secretary's duplicity and of his own ignoble truckling to that influential personage came into his mind. A beautiful, newly-coppered, newly-captured little French privateer had been virtually promised to him:
the secretary's brother had appeared from Gibraltar - adieu, kiss my hand to that command. 'Kiss my arse,' said Jack aloud, remembering the politic tameness with which he had received the news, together with the secretary's renewed professions of good will and of unspecified good offices to be performed in the future. Then he remembered his own conduct that evening, particularly his withdrawing to let the small man walk by, and his inability to find any remark, any piece of repartee that would have been both crushing and well clear of boorishness. He was profoundly dissatisfied with himself, and with the man in the black coat, and with the service. And with the velvet softness of the April night, and the choir of nightingales in the orange-trees, and the host of stars hanging so low as almost to touch the palms.
The Crown, where Jack was staying, had a certain resemblance to its famous namesake in Portsmouth: it had the same immense gilt and scarlet sign hanging up outside, a relic of former British occupations, and the house had been built about 1750 in the purest English taste, with no concessions whatever to the Mediterranean except for the tiles; but there the likeness stopped. The landlord was from Gibraltar and the staff was Spanish, or rather Minorcan; the place smelt of olive oil, sardines and wine; and there was not the least possibility of a Bakewell tart, an Eccles cake or even a decent suet pudding. Yet, on the other hand, no English inn could produce a chambermaid so very like a dusky peach as Mercedes. She bounced out on to the dim landing, filling it with vitality and a kind of glow, and she called up the stairs, 'A letter, Teniente: I bring him . . . ' A moment later she was at his side, smiling with innocent delight: but he was only too clearly aware of what any letter addressed to him might have in it, and he did not respond with anything more than a mechanical jocosity and a vague dart at her bosom.
'And Captain Allen come for you,' she added.
'Allen? Allen? What the devil can he want with me?' Captain Allen was a quiet, elderly man; all that Jack knew of him was that he was an American Loyalist and that he was considered very set in his ways - invariably tacked by suddenly putting his helm hard a-lee, and wore a long-skirted waistcoat. 'Oh, the funeral, no doubt,' he said. 'A subscription.'
'Sad, Teniente, sad?' said Mercedes, going away along the corridor. 'Poor Teniente.'
Jack took his candle from the table and went straight to his room. He did not trouble with the letter until he had thrown off his coat and untied his stock; then he looked suspiciously at the outside. He noticed that it was addressed, in a hand he did not know, to Captain Aubrey, R.N.: he frowned, said 'Damned fool', and turned the letter over. The black seal had been blurred in the impression, and although he held it close to the candle, directing the light in a slanting manner over its surface, he could not make it out.
'I cannot make it out,' he said. 'But at least it ain't old Hunks. He always seals with a wafer.' Hunks was his agent, his vulture, his creditor.
At length he went so far as to open the letter, which read:
By the Right Honourable Lord Keith, Knight of the Bath, Admiral of the Blue and Commander in Chief of His Majesty's Ships and Vessels employed and to be employed in the Mediterranean, etc., etc., etc.
Whereas Captain Samuel Allen of His Majesty's Sloop Sophie is removed to the Pallas, Captain James Bradby deceased -You are hereby required and directed to proceed on board the Sophie and take upon you the Charge and Command of Commander of her; willing and requiring all the Officers and Company belonging to the said Sloop to behave themselves in their several Employments with all due Respect and Obedience to you their Commander; and you likewise to observe as well the General Printed Instructions as what Orders and Directions you may from time to time receive from any your superior Officer for His Majesty's Service. Hereof nor you nor any of you may fail as you will answer the contrary at your Peril.
And for so doing this shall be your Order. Given on board the Foudroyant at sea, 1st April, 1800.
To John Aubrey, Esqr, hereby appointed Commmander of His Majesty's Sloop Sophie By command of the Admiral Thos Walker.
His eyes took in the whole of this in a single instant, yet his mind refused either to read or to believe it: his face went red, and with a curiously harsh, severe expression he obliged himself to spell through it line by line. The second reading ran faster and faster: and an immense delighted joy came welling up about his heart. His face grew redder still, and his mouth widened of itself. He laughed aloud and tapped the letter, folded it, unfolded it and read it with the closest attention, having entirely forgotten the beautiful phrasing of the middle paragraph. For an icy second the bottom of the new world that had sprung into immensely detailed life seemed to be about to drop out as his eyes focused upon the unlucky date. He held the letter up to the light, and there, as firm, comforting and immovable as the rock of Gibraltar, he saw the Admiralty's watermark, the eminently respectable anchor of hope.
He was unable to keep still. Pacing briskly up and down the room he put on his coat, threw it off again and uttered a series of disconnected remarks, chuckling as he did so. 'There I was, worrying. . . ha, ha. . . such a neat little brig- know her well.. . ha, ha. . . should have thought myself the happiest of men with the command of the sheer-hulk, or the Vulture slop-ship . . . any ship at all . . . admirable copperplate hand - singular fine paper. . . almost the only quarterdeck brig in the service: charming cabin, no doubt capital weather - so warm .. . ha, ha... if only I can get men: that's the great point. . .' He was exceedingly hungry and thirsty: he darted to the bell and pulled it violently, but before the rope had stopped quivering his head was out in the corridor and he was hailing the chambermaid. 'Mercy! Mercy! Oh, there you are, my dear. What can you bring me to eat, manger, mangiare? Polio? Cold roast polio? And a bottle of wine, vino - two bottles of vino. And Mercy, will you come and do something for me? I want you, desirer, to do something for me, eh? Sew on, cosare, a button.'
'Yes, Teniente,' said Mercedes, her eyes rolling in the candlelight and her teeth flashing white.
'Not teniente,' cried Jack, crushing the breath out of her plump, supple body. 'Capitan! Capitano, ha, ha, ha!'
He woke in the morning straight out of a deep, deep sleep:
he was fully awake, and even before he opened his eyes he was brimming with the knowledge of his promotion.
'She is not quite a first-rate, of course,' he observed, 'but who on earth wants a blundering great first-rate, with not the slightest chance of an independent cruise? Where is she lying? Beyond the ordnance quay, in the next berth to the Rattler. I shall go down directly and have a look at her -waste not a minute. No, no. That would never do - must give them fair warning. No: the first thing I must do is to go and render thanks in the proper quarters and make an appointment with Allen - dear old Allen - I must wish him joy.'
The first thing he did in point of fact was to cross the road to the naval outfitter's and pledge his now elastic credit to the extent of a noble, heavy, massive epaulette, the mark of his present rank - a symbol which the shopman fixed upon his left shoulder at once and upon which they both gazed with great complacency in the long glass, the shopman looking from behind Jack's shoulder with unfeigned pleasure on his face.
As the door closed behind him Jack saw the man in the black coat on the other side of the road, near the coffee-house. The evening flooded back into his mind and he hurried across, calling out, 'Mr - Mr Maturin. Why, there you are, sir. I owe you a thousand apologies, I am afraid. I must have been a sad bore to you last night, and I hope you will forgive me. We sailors hear so little music -are so little used to genteel company - that we grow carried away. I beg your pardon.'
'My dear sir,' cried the man in the black coat, with an odd flush rising in his dead-white face, 'you had every reason to be carried away. I have never heard a better quartetto in my life - such unity, such fire. May I propose a cup of chocolate, or coffee? It would give me great pleasure.'
'You are very good, sir. I should like it of all things. To tell the truth, I was in such a hurry of spirits I forgot my breakfast. I have just been promoted,' he added, with an off-hand laugh.
'Have you indeed? I wish you joy of it with all my heart, sure. Pray walk in.'
At the sight of Mr Maturin the waiter waved his forefinger in that discouraging Mediterranean gesture of negation - an inverted pendulum. Maturin shrugged, said to Jack, 'The posts are wonderfully slow these days,' and to the waiter, speaking in the Catalan of the island, 'Bring us a pot of chocolate, Jep, furiously whipped, and some cream.'
'You speak the Spanish, sir?' said Jack, sitting down and flinging out the skirts of his coat to clear his sword in a wide gesture that filled the low room with blue. 'That must be a splendid thing, to speak the Spanish. I have often tried, and with French and Italian too; but it don't answer. They generally understand me, but when they say anything, they speak so quick I am thrown out. The fault is here, I dare say,' he'observed, rapping his forehead. 'It was the same with Latin when I was a boy: and how old Pagan used to flog me.' He laughed so heartily at the recollection that the waiter with the chocolate laughed too, and said, 'Fine day, Captain, sir, fine day!'
'Prodigious fine day,' said Jack, gazing upon his rat-like visage with great benevolence. 'Bello soleil, indeed. But,' he added, bending down and peering out of the upper part of the window, 'it would not surprise me if the tramontana were to set in.' Turning to Mr Maturin he said, 'As soon as I was out of bed this morning I noticed that greenish look in the nor-nor-east, and I said to myself, "When the sea-breeze dies away, I should not be surprised if the tramontana were to set in."
'It is curious that you should find foreign languages difficult, sir,' said Mr Maturin, who had no views to offer on the weather, 'for it seems reasonable to suppose that a good ear for music would accompany a facility for acquiring - that the two would necessarily run together.'
'I am sure you are right, from a philosophical point of view,' said Jack. 'But there it is. Yet it may well be that my musical ear is not so very famous, neither; though indeed I love music dearly. Heaven knows I find it hard enough to pitch upon the true note, right in the middle.'
'You play, sir?'
'I scrape a little, sir. I torment a fiddle from time to time.'
'So do I! So do I! Whenever I have leisure, I make my attempts upon the 'cello.'
'A noble instrument,' said Jack, and they talked about Boccherini, bows and rosin, copyists, the care of strings, with great satisfaction in one another's company until a brutally ugly clock with a lyre-shaped pendulum struck the hour: Jack Aubrey emptied his cup and pushed back his chair. 'You will forgive me, I am sure. I have a whole round of official calls and an interview with my predecessor. But I hope I may count upon the honour, and may I say the pleasure - the great pleasure - of your company for dinner?'
'Most happy,' said Maturin, with a bow.
They were at the door. 'Then may we appoint three o'clock at the Crown?' said Jack. 'We do not keep fashionable hours in the service, and I grow so devilish hungry and peevish by then that you will forgive me, I am sure. We will wet the swab, and when it is handsomely awash, why then perhaps we might try a little music, if that would not be disagreeable to you.'
'Did you see that hoopoe?' cried the man in the black coat. 'What is a hoopoe?' cried Jack, staring about.
'A bird. That cinnamon-coloured bird with barred wings. Upupa epops. There! There, over the roof. There! There!'
'Where? Where? How does it bear?'
'It has gone now. I had been hoping to see a hoopoe ever since I arrived. In the middle of the town! Happy Mahon, to have such denizens. But I beg your pardon. You were speaking of wetting a swab.'
'Oh, yes. It is a cant expression we have in the Navy. The swab is this' - patting his epaulette - 'and when first we ship it, we wet it: that is to say, we drink a bottle or two of wine.'
'Indeed?' said Maturin with a civil inclination of his head. 'A decoration, a badge of rank, I make no doubt? A most elegant ornament, so it is, upon my soul. But, my dear sir, have you not forgot the other one?'
'Well,' said Jack, laughing, 'I dare say I shall put them both on, by and by. Now I will wish you a good day and thank you for the excellent chocolate. I am so happy that you saw your epop.'
- The first call Jack had to pay was to the senior captain, the naval commandant of Port Mahon. Captain Harte lived in a big rambling house belonging to one Martinez, a Spanish merchant, and he had an official set of rooms on the far side of the patio. As Jack crossed the open spaces he heard the sound of a harp, deadened to a tinkle by the shutters - they were drawn already against the mounting sun, and already geckoes were hurrying about on the sunlit walls.
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