The Mauritius Command
Captain Aubrey of the Royal Navy lived in a part of Hampshire well supplied with sea-officers, some of whom had reached flag-rank in Rodney's day while others were still waiting for their first command. The more fortunate had large, comfortable houses overlooking Portsmouth, Spithead, St Helens, the Isle of Wight, and the constant procession of men-of-war; and Captain Aubrey might have been among them, since as a commander and as a young post-captain he had done so well in prize-money that he was known in the service as Lucky Jack Aubrey. But want of a ship, the failure of his agent, his ignorance of business, and the sharp practice of an attorney had reduced him to half-pay and no more; and in fact his Cottage lay on the northern slope of the Downs, not far from Chilton Admiral, and the rising hill shut out all the sea, together with most of the sun.
This cottage, though picturesque among its ash trees and even romantic, ideally suited for two in the early days of his marriage, was neither large nor comfortable; it had always been low-ceilinged, pokey and inconvenient, but now that it also contained two babies, a niece, a ruined mother-in-law, some large pieces of furniture from Mapes Court, Mrs Williams's former home, and a couple of servants, it was something like the Black Hole of Calcutta, except that whereas the Hole was hot, dry and airless, Ashgrove Cottage let in draughts from all sides, while the damp rising from the floor joined the leaks in the roof to form pools in many of the rooms. These people Captain Aubrey maintained on nine shillings a day, paid half -yearly and often long after the anxiously-awaited date; and although in his mother-in-law he had a remarkable economist to help him, the effort of doing so had imprinted an expression of abiding worry on a face that nature had meant to look cheerful--an expression that sometimes had a touch of frustration in it as well, for Captain Aubrey, a scientific as well as a natural born sailor, devoted to hydrography and navigation, was deeply concerned with a plan for finding the longitude at sea by the moons of Jupiter, and although he ground the mirrors and lenses for his telescope himself he would dearly have loved to be able to spend a guinea or two on brass-work from time to time.
At some distance below Ashgrove Cottage a deep lane led up through the fungus-smelling woods. The heavy autumnal rains had turned the clayey bottom into a quagmire, and through this quagmire, sitting sideways upon his horse with his feet so withdrawn from the mud that he appeared to be crouching on its back, like an ape, rode Dr. Maturin, Captain Aubrey's closest friend, the surgeon in many of the ships he had commanded, a small, indefinably odd and even ill-looking man with pale eyes and a paler face, topped by the full-bottomed wig that marked him as a physician, if a somewhat old-fashioned one. He was, for him, unusually well dressed in a snuff-coloured coat with silver buttons and buckskin breeches; but the effect was spoilt by the long black sash that he wore wound three times round his waist, which gave him an outlandish air in the English countryside. On his saddle-bow lay a net, filled with a variety of mushrooms--bolets of all kinds, blewits, chanterelles, Jew's ears--and now, seeing a fine flush of St Bruno's collops, he sprang from his horse, seized a bush, and scrambled up the bank. As he did so an uncommonly large black and white bird lifted from among the trees, its vast wings labouring in the calm. Maturin's hand darted into the folds of his sash, whipped out a little spy-glass and presented it well before the bird, now harried by a pair of crows, crossed the valley and vanished over the hill that divided Ashgrove Cottage from the sea. With great satisfaction he stared after it for a while and then lowered his glass to the cottage itself. To his surprise he noticed that the little home-made observatory had been moved a considerable distance to the right, a good furlong, indeed, to a point where the ridge dropped fifty feet. And there, standing by its characteristic dome and overtopping it as Captain Gulliver might have overtopped a temple in Lilliput, stood Captain Aubrey, resting an ordinary naval glass upon the dome and peering steadfastly at some object far remote. The light was full on him; his face was sharp and clear in Maturin's telescope, and with a shock the Doctor saw not only that look of anxiety but also the marks of age and unhappiness. Stephen Maturin had thought of Aubrey as powerful resilient cheerful youth itself for so long that this change and the slow, weary motion as the distant figure closed the instrument and stood up, his hand pressed to an old wound in his back, were unusually distressing. Maturin closed his glass, picked the mushrooms and whistled his horse, a little Arab that came like a dog, looking affectionately into his face as he made his awkward journey down the bank with his hatful of collops.
Ten minutes later he stood at the door of the observatory. Captain Aubrey's bottom now protruded from it, entirely filling the gap. "He must have his telescope as nearly horizontal as it will go, and he bending double over it, " reflected Dr. Maturin. "There is no weight lost in these posteriors, however: would still tip the beam at fifteen stone." Aloud he said, "Hola, Jack."
"Stephen! " cried Jack, shooting out backwards with surprising nimbleness in so large a man and seizing his friend by both hands. His pink face was scarlet with pleasure, and a slight answering flush appeared in Maturin's. "How very happy I am to see you, old Stephen! How are you? Where have you been? Where have you been all this time?" But recollecting that Dr. Maturin, as well as being a medical man, was also an intelligence agent--that his movements were necessarily obscure--that his appearance might well be connected with the recent Spanish declaration of war upon France--he hurried on, "Looking after your affairs, no doubt. Splendid, splendid. You are staying with us, of course. Have you seen Sophie?"
"I have not. I paused at the kitchen door, asked the young woman was the Captain at home, and hearing domestic sounds within--the massacre of the innocents came to my mind--I merely left my offering and my horse and came along. You have moved the observatory."
"Yes. It was no great task, however: the whole contraption don't weigh three hundredweight. Killick and I just unshipped the dome--it is copper from the old Diomed that the Dockyard let me have--and then we clapped on a couple of purchases and rolled it up in a forenoon."
"How is Killick?'asked Stephen. Killick had been Jack's servant these many years; the three had been shipmates in several commissions, and Stephen valued him.
"Very well, I believe. I had news of him from Collard of Ajax; he sent a shark's backbone walking-stick for the twins. I had to turn him away, you know."
Stephen nodded and said, "Did the observatory not answer by the house, so?"
"Yes, it did, " said Jack hesitantly. "But I tell you what it is, Stephen: from here you can see the Wight and the Solent, the tip of Gosport and Spithead. Quick, come and have a look--she will not have moved yet."
Stephen lowered his face to the eyepiece, shading it with his hands; and there, inverted on a pale luminous background, hung a misty three-decker, almost filling the disc. As he shifted the focus she sprang sharp and clear into view. Brilliantly clear: her sails, top gallants down to courses, limp in the flat calm: the cable out of her hawsehole as her boats ahead carried out the warps to bring her to her mooring. Whilst he gazed he heard Jack's explanations--this was his new six-inch speculum--three months" grinding and buffing--finished off with the finest Pomeranian sludge--Miss Herschel's help invaluable--he had taken off a shade too much on the rim and had very nearly given up heart when she put him in the way of recovering it--admirable woman.
"Why, it is not the Victory, " cried Stephen as the ship began to move. "It is the Caledonia. I can see the Scotch arms. Jack, I can positively see the Scotch arms! At this distance! You are the speculum-maker of the world, so you are.
Jack laughed with pleasure. "Well do you see, it is the purest day for viewing, " he said modestly. "Never a shimmer even by the water's edge. How I hope it will hold out until tonight. I will show you such a double star in Andromeda, less than a second of arc apart. Think of that, Stephen. Less than a second apart! With my three-inch glass I could never resolve anything much better than two. Should you not like to see a double less than a second apart?"
"Sure, it must be prodigious. But for my part I should as soon watch the shipping. Such life, such activity, and we Olympian above it all. Do you not spend hours and hours up here?"
"I do, Stephen, I do indeed. But I beg you will not mention it at the house. Sophie don't mind my stargazing, however late--and we shall have to sit up until three this morning before I can show you Jupiter--but staring at the Solent ain't astronomy. She don't say anything, but it makes her low in her spirits to think I am pining for the sea."
"Do you pine much, Jack?" asked Stephen, but before Captain Aubrey could answer their attention was distracted by a clamour from the cottage, by Mrs Williams's hoarse martial voice, the shrill, defiant replies of the servant she was rebuking. Sometimes the motionless air carried the words up the hill with perfect clarity, and they heard the cry" a foreign gentleman left them in my kitchen" several times repeated, but generally the passionate voices overlaid one another, and they were further confused by the echo from the hanging wood on the other side of the valley, by the wail of children, and by the repeated slamming of a door.
Jack shrugged his shoulders: yet after a pause he looked benevolently down at his friend, surveying him. "You have not really told me how you are, Stephen, " he said. "How do you do in fact.
"Amazingly well, I thank you, Jack. I took the waters at Caldas de Bohi not long ago, and derived great benefit from them." Jack nodded: he knew the place, a village in the Pyrenees not far from Dr. Maturin's high sheepwalk; for Stephen, though an Irishman, had property in those parts, coming down to him from his Catalan grandmother. "And as well as growing as supple as a fawn, " continued Dr. Maturin, "I was able to make a number of valuable observations on the cretins of Bohi. Bohi is largely inhabited by idiots, my dear."
"Bohi is not the only place, not by a long chalk. Look at the Admiralty, and what do you see? A general as First Lord, that is what you see. Would you believe it, Stephen? And the first thing this infernal redcoat does, is to take away one of the captain's eighths--he reduces our prize-money by a third, which is stark, raving lunacy. And then, quite apart from the idiots in Whitehall, this village has half a dozen; they squeak and gibber in the market place. And in sober earnest, Stephen, I am sometimes cruelly worried by the twins. They do not look over bright to me, and I should take it very kind, was you to survey them privately. But I dare say you would like to look at the garden first?"
"I should like it of all things. And the bees."
"Why, as to the bees, they seem to have piped down these last few weeks. That is to say, I have not been very close since I tried to take their honey, but I have not noticed them about. It must be more than a month since I was stung. But if you would like to see them, let us take the upper path."
The hives stood in a trim row on white painted stools, but never a bee was to be seen. Stephen peered into the entrances, saw the telltale cobweb, shook his head and observed, "It is the fell wax-moth." He prised a skep from its stool and held it out, inverted, showing the dirty wreck of combs, with the vile grubs spinning their cocoons.
"The wax-moth! " cried Jack. "Is there something I should have done?"
"No, " said Stephen. "Not that I know of."
"I would not have had it happen for the world. I am so concerned. Sophie and I valued them extremely, as your present."
"Never mind, " said Stephen. "I shall bring you some more, of a bolder stock. Pray let us view the garden."
In the Indian Ocean Captain Aubrey had dreamed of a cottage, with a little land to it: rows of turnips, carrots, onions, cabbages and beans; now his dream was realized. But it had taken no account of the black fly, the wireworm, the turnip-beetle, the leather-jacket, the green-fly and the black, the cabbage white. The rows were there, half an acre of them, dug as straight as a ruler in the poor, shallow, spewy, earth, and in them stood some dwarfish plants. "Of course, " said Jack, "there is nothing to be seen at this time of the year; but I mean to get three to four loads of dung on to the land this winter, and that will make a marvelous difference. I have already put some to my Brunswick cabbages, beyond Sophie's rose-garden. This way." As they skirted the meagre potatoes he pointed over the hedge and said, "That is the cow."
"I thought it must be a cow: for milk, I make no doubt?"
"Just so. Vast great quantities of milk, butter, cream, veal: that is to say, we look forward to them presently. At the moment she happens to be dry."
"Yet she does not look gravid. Rather the reverse, indeed: lean, Pharaonic, cadaverous."
"Well, the fact of the matter, Stephen, " said Jack, staring at the cow, "the fact of the matter is that she refuses the bull. He is game enough, oh Lord, yes; but she will have nothing to say to him. Then he flies into a hellfire passion, bellowing and tearing up the ground; and we go without milk."
"From a philosophical point of view, her behaviour is logical enough. Reflect upon the continual, wearisome pregnancies, the price of a momentary and I may say aleatory pleasure. Reflect upon the physical discomfort of a full udder, to say nothing of the necessary parturition, with its attendant perils. I do not mention the uneasiness of seeing one's offspring turned into a blanquette de veau ; for this is peculiar to the cow. Were I a female of any kind, I should beg to decline these general cares; and were I, in this particular case, a heifer, I should certainly choose to remain dry. Yet it must be confessed that from a domestical point of view celibacy in a cow takes on a different aspect entirely: here the general good calls out for teeming loins."
"Yes, " said Jack. "It does. Now here is Sophie's garden. It will be full of roses, come next June. Do you think they look a trifle spindly, Stephen? Do you think I should cut them back very hard, this winter?"
"Nothing do I know about gardening, " said Maturin. "Nothing at all. But perhaps they may be a little, shall I say, rachitic?"
"I don't know how it is, " said Jack, "I don't seem to have much luck with ornamental plants: that was supposed to be a lavender hedge, do you see? The roots came from Mapes. However, come and look at my cabbages. I am quite proud of them." They passed through a wicket-gate and came to a plot at the back of the cottage: a sea of greenery, with a noble steaming dunghill beyond it. "There, " cried Jack, "have you ever seen the like?"
"I have not, " said Stephen.
"You may think them rather close, but I reasoned this way: for slinging hammocks we allow fourteen inches a man; now a man will eat a cabbage, and the part cannot be greater than the whole; so I set them by that reckoning, and it has answered amazingly." He laughed with satisfaction. "Do you remember the old Roman that could not bear to cut Ôem?"
"Diocletian, I believe."
"Just so. How I understand him. And yet, you know, whenever I do bring myself to spoil a rank, precious little encouragement do I get. Always this silly cry of caterpillars. Lord, if they had ate a tenth part of what we have ate in the way of weevils and bargemen in our biscuit, month in month out, on blockade, they would thank Heaven fasting for an honest green caterpillar."
They stood a while, contemplating the cabbage-patch, and in the stillness Stephen could actually hear the innumerable jaws at work. His eyes wandered from the mass of green to the dunghill: on top of it he noticed the bolets, chanterelles, blewits and collops that he had picked a little while before. The crash of a slamming door above interrupted their meditations; this was followed by the sound of heavy steps within, and the back-door opened, to display a square, red-faced woman, the spit of Mrs Williams but for a cast in her left eye and, when she spoke, a shrill Welsh voice. She had her box on her shoulder.
"Why, Bessie, " cried Jack. "Where are you going? What are you about?"
Passion so choked the woman that for a moment her lips moved with never a sound; then all at once the words came darting out, accompanied by so venomous a look that Stephen crossed himself. "A character, a character, that's all I want. Near with the sugar, nearer with the tea. A character I want, is all." With this she vanished round the corner of the cottage.
Jack looked after her, and observed in a low voice, "That makes the fourth this year. It is the damnedest thing, Stephen: I managed a ship's company of three hundred odd as easy as kiss your hand, but I cannot get the least notion of discipline into this establishment." He paused, brooding, and added, "You know very well I was no friend to the cat at sea; but rot me, I can see it has its uses." Another reflective pause in which his face took on the stern, implacable expression of one who orders a dozen lashes to be laid on; then this look was replaced by one of concern and he cried, "Oh Stephen, what a wretched host I am. You must be clemmed. Come in, come in, and we'll have a glass of grog. This way: you will not mind walking through the scullery--no ceremony, eh? Sophie must be somewhere in front."
As he spoke a minute window opened above their heads and Sophie's head emerged. Her distracted look instantly changed to open delight, the sweetest smile. "Oh Stephen, " she cried, "how very happy I am to see you. Come in. I shall be down directly." Stephen plucked off his hat, bowed and kissed his hand, though indeed he could perfectly well have reached hers from where he stood.
"Step in, " said Jack, "and mind your head on the beam."
The only thing in the scullery apart from a vast copper and its smell of boiling baby-clothes was a young woman on a chair with her apron over her head, rocking mutely to and fro. Three paces carried them through it however, into a narrow passage and so to the parlour, a pleasant little room with a bow window, made more spacious by a number of sea-going devices such as lockers under the windows and compact brass bound ship's furniture, yet somewhat marred by incongruous great objects never designed for a cottage, such as a high-backed caned seat for five or six people and a long case clock whose hood would not fit under the ceiling and which therefore stood bareheaded in a corner, shedding desolation. Jack had scarcely time to ask Dr. Maturin whether the bow did not remind him of the stern window of the brig in which they had first sailed together when there was the sound of steps on the stairs and Sophie ran in. She kissed Stephen with sisterly affection and holding him by both hands scrutinized him for his health, his happiness and his general welfare with a tenderness that went straight to his heart, talking all the time with extreme rapidity -'she was amazed, delighted -where had he been?--had he been quite well?--he could not imagine how pleased she was--had he been here long?--why had not Jack called her? she had missed a quarter of an hour of him--she was sure the twins would remember him--they would be so excited--and little Cecilia too of course--he was hungry, was he not?--he would take a piece of seed-cake--how was he?"
I am very well, I thank you. And you too, my dear, you are blooming, blooming." She was indeed. She had caught up most of the wisps of hair he had seen streaming from the window, but one had escaped and its disorder enchanted him; yet for all the complacency with which he gazed upon her he could not conceal from his private mind that the tendency to plumpness he had once warned her of was quite gone, that were the present flush of pleasure not on her face she might look worn and even haggard, and that her hands, once so elegant, were now coarse and reddened.
Mrs Williams walked in. Stephen rose to bow, to ask after her health and that of her other daughters, and to answer her questions. He was about to sit down again after a tolerably detailed account of Mrs Williams" providential recovery when she cried, "Not on the settee., Doctor Maturin, if you please. It is bad for the cane. You will be more comfortable In Captain Aubrey's chair."
A thump and a dismal howling above-stairs called Sophie from the room, and presently Jack went after her. Mrs. Williams, feeling that she had been a little abrupt in the matter of his sitting, gave Stephen a history of the settee since its manufacture in Dutch William's time: she had brought it with her from dear Mapes, where no doubt he remembered it in the summer drawing room; she liked Captain A's cottage to have something of the air of a gentleman's house, and in any case she could not bear leaving so valuable, so historical a piece to her tenant, a worthy sort of man no doubt, but something in the commercial line, and people in that walk of life would not scruple to sit on it. The clock also came from Mapes, the most accurate clock in the county.
"A handsome clock it is too, " said Stephen. "A regulator, I believe. Could it not be set a-going?"
"Oh, no, sir, " said Mrs Williams with a pitying look. "Was it to be set a-going, the works would instantly start to wear." From this she carried on to wear in general and the prohibitive cost of repairs, with an aside about Captain A's being handy in the house.
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