Authors: Patrick O'Brian
Tags: #Historical Fiction
'Smoothe runnes the Water, where the Brooke is deepe. And in his simple shew he harbours Treason.'
A gentle breeze from the north-east after a night of rain, and the washed sky over Malta had a particular quality in its light that sharpened the lines of the noble buildings, bringing out all the virtue of the stone; the air too was a delight to breathe, and the city of Valletta was as cheerful as though it were fortunate in love or as though it had suddenly heard good news.
This was more than usually remarkable in a group of naval officers sitting in the bowered court of Searle's hotel. To be sure, they looked out upon the arcaded Upper Baracca, filled with soldiers, sailors and civilians pacing slowly up and down in a sunlight so brilliant that it made even the black hoods the Maltese women wore look gay, while the officers' uniforms shone like splendid flowers. A cosmopolitan crowd, for although most of the colour was the scarlet and gold of the British army many of the nations engaged in the war against Napoleon were represented and the shell-pink of Kresimir's Croats, for example, made a charming contrast with the Neapolitan hussars' silver-laced blue. And then beyond and below the Baracca there was the vast sweep of the Grand Harbour, pure sapphire today, flecked with the sails of countless small craft plying between Valletta and the great fortified headlands on the other side, St Angelo and Isola, and the men-of-war, the troopships and the victuallers, a sight to please any sailor's heart.
Yet on the other hand all these gentlemen were captains without ships, a mumchance, melancholy class in general and even more so at this time, when the long, long war seemed to be working up to its climax, when competition was even stronger than before, and when distinction and worthwhile appointments, to say nothing of prize-money and promotion, depended on having a sea-going command. Some were absolutely shipless, either because their vessels had sunk under them, which was the case with Edward Long's archaic Aeolus, or because promotion had set them ashore, or because an unfortunate court-martial had done the same. Most however were only grass-widowers; their ships, battered by years of blockading Toulon in all weathers, had been sent in for repair. But the dockyards were overcrowded, the repairs were often serious and far-reaching and always very slow, and here the captains had to sit while the precious sea-time ran by, cursing the delay. Some of the richer men had sent for their wives, who were no doubt a great comfort to them, but most were condemned to glum celibacy or to what local solace they could find. Captain Aubrey was one of these, for although he had recently captured a neat little prize in the Ionian Seas it had not yet been condemned in the Admiralty court and in any case his affairs were horribly involved at home, with legal difficulties of every kind; besides, accommodation in Malta had grown shockingly expensive and now that he was older he no longer dared lay out large sums that he did not yet possess; he therefore lived as a bachelor, as modestly as a post-captain decently could, up three pair of stairs at Searle's, his only amusement being the opera. Indeed, he was perhaps the most unfortunate of those whose ships were in the repairers' hands, for he had contrived to send no less than two separate vessels into dock, so that he had a double set of slow devious stupid corrupt incompetent officials, tradesmen and artificers to deal with: the first was the Worcester, a worn-out seventy-four-gun ship of the line that had very nearly come apart in a long, fruitless chase of the French fleet in dirty weather, and the second was the Surprise, a small, sweet-sailing frigate, a temporary command in which he had been sent to the Ionian while the Worcester was repairing and in which he had engaged two Turkish ships, the Torgud and the Katibi, in an extremely violent action that had left the Torgud sinking, the Katibi a prisoner and the Surprise full of holes between wind and water. The Worcester, that ill-conceived, ill-built coffinship, would have been much better broken up and sold for firewood; but it was upon her worthless, profitable hull that the dockyard spent all its slow creeping care, while the Surprise lay in limbo for want of a few midship knees, the starboard knighthead and bumkin, and twenty square yards of copper sheathing, while her crew, her once excellent crew of picked seamen, grew idle, dissolute, debauched, drunken and unhealthy, while some of the very best hands and even petty-officers were stolen from him by unscrupulous superiors and even his perfect first lieutenant left the ship.
Captain Aubrey should have been the gloomiest of a glum gathering, but in fact he had been rattling away, talking loud, and even singing, with such good will that his particular friend, the Surprise's surgeon Stephen Maturin, had withdrawn to a quieter arbour, taking with him their temporary shipmate Professor Graham, a moral philosopher on leave from his Scottish university, an authority on the Turkish language and Eastern affairs in general. Captain Aubrey's high spirits were caused partly by the beautiful day acting on a constitutionally cheerful nature, partly by the infectious merriment of his companions, but more, very much more, by the fact that at the farthest end of the table sat Thomas Pullings, until very recently his first lieutenant and now the most junior commander in the Navy, the very lowest of those entitled to be called captain, and that only by courtesy. The promotion had cost Mr Pullings some pints of blood and a surprisingly ugly wound - a glancing blow from a Turkish sabre had sliced off most of his forehead and nose - but he would willingly have suffered ten times the pain and disfigurement for the golden epaulettes that he kept glancing at with a secret smile, while his hand perpetually strayed to the one or to the other. It was a promotion that Jack Aubrey had worked for these many years, and one that he had almost despaired of achieving, for Pullings, though an eminent seaman, likeable and brave, had no advantages of person or birth: even on this occasion Aubrey had had no confidence that his dispatch would have the desired effect, since the Admiralty, always loth to promote, could take refuge in the excuse that the Torgud's captain was a rebel and not the commander of a ship belonging to a hostile power. Yet the beautiful commission had come straight back, travelling in the Calliope and reaching Captain Pullings so short a time ago that he was still in his first amazed happiness, smiling, saying very little, answering at random, and suddenly laughing out loud with no apparent cause.
Dr Maturin too was fond of Thomas Pullings: like Captain Aubrey he had known him as midshipman, master's mate and lieutenant; he esteemed him highly and had sewn back his nose and forehead with even more than his usual care, sitting by his cot night after night during his days of fever. But Dr Maturin had been baulked of his John Dory. This was Friday; he had been promised a John Dory and he had looked forward to it; but on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the gregale had blown with such force that no fishing-boats had put out, and since Searle, unused to Catholic officers (rare birds in the Navy, where every lieutenant, on receiving his first commission, was required to renounce the Pope), had not even laid in any salt stock-fish, Maturin was obliged to dine on vegetables cooked in the English manner, waterlogged, tasteless, depressing. He was not ordinarily a greedy man, nor very ill-natured, but this disappointment had come on top of a series of vexations and some very grave anxieties, and on the second day of his giving up tobacco.
'You might say that Duns Scotus stands in much the same relationship to Aquinas as Kant to Leibnitz,' said Graham, carrying on their earlier conversation.
'Sure, I have often heard the remark in Ballinasloe,' said Maturin. 'But I have no patience with Emmanuel Kant. Ever since I found him take such notice of that thief Rousseau, I have had no patience with him at all -for a philosopher to countenance that false ranting dog of a Swiss raparee shows either a criminal levity or a no less criminal gullibility. Gushing, carefully-calculated tears, false confidences, untrue confessions, enthusiasm -romantic vistas.' His hand moved of itself to his cigar-case and came away disappointed. 'How I hate enthusiasm and romantic vistas," he said.
'Davy Hume was of your opinion,' said Graham. 'I mean with regard to Monsieur Rousseau. He found him to be little more than a crackit gaberlunzie.'
'But at least Rousseau did not make a noise,' said Maturin, looking angrily at his friends in the farther bower. 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau may have been an apostate, a cold-hearted prevaricating fornicator, but he did not behave like a Bashan bull when he was merry. Will you look how they call out to those young women now, for shame?'
The young women, who nightly capered on the stage or lent their voices to the chorus, and who often accompanied the younger officers on their boating picnics to Gozo or Camino or their expeditions to what meagre groves the island had to offer, did not seem outraged: they called back and laughed and waved, and one of them, coming up the steps, poised herself for a moment on the arm of Captain Pellew's chair, drank off his glass of wine, and told them they must all come to the opera on Saturday; she was to sing the part of the fifth gardener. At this Captain Aubrey made some amazingly witty remark: it was lost to Maturin, but the roar of laughter that followed must certainly have been heard in St Angelo.
'Jesus, Mary and Joseph,' said Maturin. 'In Ireland I have known many a numerous gathering rejoice at little more than a genteel murmur; and it is to be supposed that the same applies to Scotland.'
Graham could suppose no such thing, but he was benevolently inclined towards Maturin and he said^no more than 'Heuch: ablins.'
'Some of my best friends are Englishmen,' continued Maturin. 'Yet even the most valuable have this same vicious inclination to make a confused bellowing when they are happy. It is harmless enough in their own country, where the diet deadens the sensibilities, but it travels badly: it is perceived as a superabundancy of arrogance, and is resented more than many worse crimes. The Spaniard is a vile colonist, murderous, rapacious, cruel; but he is not heard to laugh. His arrogance is of a common, universal kind, and his presence is not resented in the same way as the Englishman's. Take the case of this island alone: it is scarcely a decade since the Navy rescued the people from the horrible tyranny of the French and filled the place with wealth rather than carrying away the treasures of the churches by the shipload, but already there is a great and growing discontent and I believe the laughter has much to do with it. Though there is enough plain stupid arrogance to account for much of it, for all love. Will you look at this, now?'
Graham took the paper, held it at arm's length, and read 'The King's Civil Commissioner observes with regret that some weak and inconsiderate persons, deceived under specious pretexts, have suffered themselves to become the instruments of a few turbulent and factious individuals. They have been seduced to subscribe a paper purporting to be an application to the King for certain changes in the existing form of government of these islands."
'There is Sir Hildebrand's style in all its shining perfection,' said Maturin. 'Ebenezer Graham, you have his ear: could you not advise him to forget his pomp, his righteous indignation, for a moment and reflect upon the immense importance of Maltese good will? Could you not persuade him to address them with common civility and in their own language, or at least in Italian? Could you not... what is it, child?' he said, breaking off to attend to a little boy who had slipped through the greenery and who was standing at his side, smiling shyly, waiting to say that his sister - fifteen years of age, no more, my lord - was kind to English gentlemen: her fees were astonishingly moderate, and full satisfaction was guaranteed.
It was not much of an interruption, but it broke Maturin's flow of speech, and when the boy had gone Graham observed, 'For your part, you have Captain Aubrey's ear. Could you not advise him to avoid Mr Holden's company, rather than hail him in that public manner?'
Mr Holden had been dismissed the service for using his ship to protect some Greeks fleeing from a Turkish punitive expedition: he was now acting for a small, remote, ineffectual and premature Committee for Greek Independence, and since the English government had to keep on terms with the Sublime Porte he was a most unwelcome visitor to official Malta.
The advice, of course, was far too late. Holden was already sitting at his old shipmate's table, one hand holding a glass of wine, the other stretched out, pointing at a singularly magnificent diamond spray in Jack Aubrey's hat. 'What, what is that?' he cried.
'It is a chelengk,' said Jack with some complacency. 'Ain't I elegant?'
'Wind it up again. Wind it up for him,' said his friends, and the Captain set his hat, his best, gold-laced, number one full-dress scraper, on the table: the splendid bauble - two close-packed lines of small diamonds, each topped by a respectable stone and each four or five inches long - had a round, diamond-studded base; this he twisted anti-clockwise for several turns, and as he put on his hat again the chelengk sprang into motion, the round turning with a gentle whirr and the sprays quivering with a life of their own, so that Captain Aubrey sat in a small private coruscation, a confidential prismatic firework display, astonishingly brilliant in the sun.