Monday, January 2, 2012

Books: 21

Today is the twelfth anniversary of the much-mourned passing of one of nautical literature’s greatest sons: Patrick O’Brian. In honor of an occasion I remember the same way I do the anniversary of my own father’s death – coincidently, tomorrow – I offer the Brethren a bit of the master’s genius. An excerpt from O’Brian’s last Aubrey/Maturin novel, 21 The Final Unfinished Voyage of Jack Aubrey:

Very soon they had explored almost every part of the ship from the safer tops (propelled by Padeen and other seamen) to the echoing vaults of the darkened hold, where facetious midshipmen and first class volunteers would terrify them with sepulchral moans and waving sheets.

‘Dearest Stephen,’ said Sophie, passing him a cup of tea in the cabin. ‘I cannot tell you how glad I am that our daughters are friends again: there was a time when I almost despaired – when I should have whipped them if I had not thought it would do more harm than good. It only made me dogged when I was young.’

‘I cannot imagine you being whipped, Sophie,’ said Christine.

‘But I was, and quite often too. My mother would make us stand with our faces to the wall and whip the back of our legs with a thin sheaf of willow-wands. I do not think it ever improved my French verbs or arithmetic or even my manners.’

‘I knew some Dominican nuns who did that,’ said Stephen. ‘They whipped my Saavedra cousins until they bled: I had thought it was only Catholic. Jack hardly ever flogs: discourages it, indeed. How do you find him, my dear?’

‘Oh, very well, I thank you,’ said Sophie, blushing. ‘I must admit he is rather thinner than I could wish: but he does love having his flag, and I am so very, very happy for him. It was Prince William who sent the news, with his best compliments, which I thought wonderfully polite.’

The three little girls came in, since if there was tea there might also, in the nature of things, be cake, or at least muffin. On seeing Stephen they stopped, not looking very wise, and made a concerted bob: then Brigid ran over to him and said, ‘Oh sir, the Admiral says a Portuguee came in with the flood and he hopes there may be some mail. A boat pulled across to the flag not long since.’

‘I shall go upstairs – I shall go on deck, and ask whether it would be proper to enquire. Ladies, forgive me, I beg.’

No. It would be most improper. Jack was surprised that a man who had seen so much sea-time could suppose the thing possible or even decent – it was not exactly mutinous but it would deserve and certainly receive an exceptionally harsh reproach. But in any case Stephen was talking great nonsense. The Portuguese had been aboard Lord Leyton this hour and more and there had been no sign of mail – nothing handed up the side, no passing out of bags, no hurrying to and fro. No. The boat had done nothing more than deliver a gentleman, the gentleman in regimentals who was now walking up and down the quarterdeck with the Admiral arm in arm. ‘I have been staring at him with my glass, in this illbred fashion, for some little time,’ said Jack. ‘For although I think I know the face and the carriage I cannot put a name to either. Should you like to take a look?’

‘Sure, it is very ill-bred: but I might, to make you easy.’ Stephen took the telescope, focused it, and almost at once, as the two men on the far ship turned, he said coldly, ‘It is Henry Miller. He was at Trinity in my time and he killed Edward Taaffe in the Fifteen Acres when I was in my last year.’

‘Miller? Yes, of course, my neighbour over at Caxley. He must be related to the Admiral – Miller is Lord Leyton’s family name, and that person over there often spoke of a peerage going to some fairly close connexion. Cousin, of course: they would not be walking arm in arm, otherwise.’ After a pause Jack went on, ‘What do you mean by your Fifteen Acres?’

‘It is a space on the Phoenix Park – you know the great park in Dublin, I am sure?’ Jack nodded. ‘And that is where people go, particularly the young men of Trinity, to settle matters of honour.’

‘Just so: and he killed a gunner officer in Malta, too. He is said to be a very good shot; and he has capital pistols. I have heard him called Hair-Trigger Miller, and to be sure I have seen him bring down a great many pheasants.’

‘Would you say he was a quarrelsome man, at all?’

‘I scarcely know him. We are necessarily acquainted, but he is not the sort of man whose acquaintance I should value – in short, I do not like him. It is not the fighting. As you know, duels are much more usual in the army than with us, or even the Marines. And anyhow you and I have both been out from time to time… cannot top it the Holy Joe.’

Jack stared out over the water and went on. ‘For all I know he may be well enough liked in his regiment: but his reputation in the neighbourhood is so indifferent that I was astonished to learn that he had called on Edward and Christine when they settled in Medenham, and then at Woolcombe when Christine was staying there, with Edward so far in the north. I have no room to blackguard a man for incontinence, being no model myself: but there are limits… You know very well, Stephen, how much influence a man with a large household and a considerable estate can bring to bear on his dependents – his dependents’ daughters – and there were some very ugly tales of girls in child being turned away. I know very little: yet his conduct does seem to match with the general reprobation.’

‘He is not married, I take it?’

“No, nor ever has been. Being almost next in succession to the Leyton title, he is said to be saving himself up for some very brilliant match.’

‘Can you square a man’s valuing a peerage very highly with his going out and risking his life so often?’

‘Yes, if he is an unusually resentful unloved creature and at the same time an uncommon good shot.’

On a final note, 21 is an uncommon opportunity for writers to observe a true master of that craft at work. O’Brian’s original handwritten manuscript – a first draft no less – is included side by side with the typescript. Seeing how he edits as he writes is like watching Mozart scribble off a concerto. Brilliant!

Header: Paul Bettany as Stephen Maturin and Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey from the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World


Anonymous said...

I absolutely *love* the Aubrey/Maturin series. I'm still savoring The Far Side of the World and have much yet to go.

Pauline said...

Thank you, Mitch; what is there not to love? Come on back and share with us your "best portions". We do so love O'Brian, and those who love him, around here. Happy New Year.

Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Always fun to read the Aubrey-Maturin dialogue... RIP POB... and your father as well, my love.

Pauline said...

"Sure, it is very ill-bred: but I might, to make you easy." Just. So. Classic.