Authors: Patrick O'Brian
Tags: #Historical Fiction
The breakfast-parlour was the most cheerful room in Ashgrove Cottage, and although the builders had ruined the garden with heaps of sand and unslaked lime and bricks, and although the damp walls of the new wing in which this parlour stood still smelt of plaster, the sun poured in, blazing on the covered silver dishes and lighting the face of Sophie Aubrey as she sat there waiting for her husband. A singularly lovely face, with the lines that their earlier poverty had marked upon it quite smoothed away; but it had a somewhat anxious look. She was a sailor's wife, and although the Admiralty in the goodness of its heart had allowed her the company of her husband for a surprising length of time, appointing him (much against his will) to the command of the local Sea-Fencibles in recognition of his services in the Indian Ocean, she knew that this period was coming to an end.
The anxiety changed to unmixed pleasure as she heard his step: the door opened; a ray of sun fell on Captain Aubrey's beaming face, a ruddy face with bright blue eyes; and she knew as certainly as though it had been written on his forehead that he had bought the horse he coveted. 'There you are, sweetheart,' he cried, kissing her and lowering himself into a chair by her side, a broad elbow-chair that creaked beneath his weight.
'Captain Aubrey,' she said, 'I am afraid your bacon will be cold.'
'A cup of coffee first,' said he, 'and then all the bacon in the world - Lord, Sophie -, lifting the covers with his free hand - 'here's Fiddler's Green - eggs, bacon, chops, kippered herrings, kidneys, soft tack... How is the tooth?' Here he was referring to his son George, whose howls had made the household uneasy for some time past.
'It is through!' cried Mrs Aubrey. 'He cut it in the night, and now he is as good as gold, poor lamb. You shall see him after breakfast, Jack.'
Jack laughed with pleasure; but after a pause, and in a slightly conscious tone, he said, 'I rode over to Horridge's this morning to stir them up. Horridge was not in the way, hut his foreman said they had no notion of coming to us this month - the lime ain't thoroughly slaked, it appears -and even then they will be at a stand, with their carpenter laid up, and the pipes not yet delivered.'
'What nonsense,' said Sophie. 'There was a whole gang of them laying pipes at Admiral Hare's only yesterday. Mama saw them as she was driving by; and she would have spoken to Horridge, but he dodged behind a tree. Builders are strange, unaccountable creatures. I am afraid you were very disappointed, my dear?'
'Why, I was a little put out, I must confess: and on an empty belly, too. But, however, seeing I was there, I stepped into Carroll's yard, and bought the filly. I bated him forty guineas of her, too; and, do you see, quite apart from the foals she will bring, it will be a remarkable saving, since she will train with Hautboy and Whiskers -with her to bring out their metal, I will lay fifty to one on placing Hautboy in the Worral Stakes.'
'I long to see her,' said Sophie, with a sinking heart: she disliked most horses, except those of the very gentle kind, and she particularly disliked these running horses, even though they descended, through Old Bald Peg, from Flying Childers and the Darley Arabian himself. She disliked them for many reasons, but she was better at disguising her feelings than her husband, and with a happy, eager look he ran on unchecked, 'She will be up some time in the forenoon: the only thing I am not quite pleased about, is the new stable floor. If only we could have had some sun, and a good brisk north-easter, it would have dried out completely... nothing so bad for a horse's hoofs as remaining damp. How is your mama this morning?'
'She seems quite well, I thank you, Jack: a little remaining headache, but she ate a couple of eggs and a bowl of gruel, and she will come down with the children. She is quite excited about seeing the doctors, and she has dressed earlier than usual.'
'What can he keeping Bonden?' said Jack, glancing at the stern regulator, his astronomical clock.
'Perhaps he fell off again,' said Sophie.
'Killick was there to prop him up: no, no, 'tis ten to one they are prating about their horsemanship in the Brown Bear tap, the infernal lubbers.' Bonden was Captain Aubrey's coxswain, Killick his steward; and whenever it could be managed they moved with him from one command to the next: both had been bred to the sea from their earliest years - Bonden, indeed, had been born between two of the Indefatigable's lower-deck guns - and while both were prime man-of-war's men, neither was a great hand with a horse. Yet it was clear to all that in common decency the mail addressed to the Commanding Officer of the Sea-Fencibles had to be fetched by a mounted man; and daily the two traversed the Downs on a powerful, thickset cob, conveniently low to the ground.
A powerful, thickset woman, Mrs Williams, Captain Aubrey's mother-in-law, walked in, followed by a nurse with the baby and a one-legged seaman shepherding the two little girls. Most of the servants in Ashgrove Cottage were sailors, partly because of the extreme difficulty of inducing maids to stay within reach of Mrs Williams's tongue: upon seamen, however, long inured to the admonition of the bosun and his mates, its lash fell unregarded; and in any case its virulence was much diminished, since they were men, and since in fact they kept the place as trim as a royal yacht. The rigid lines of the garden and shrubbery might not be to everyone's taste, nor the white-painted stones that bordered every path; but no housekeeper could fail to be impressed by the gleaming floors, sanded, swabbed, and flogged dry every day before sunrise, nor by the blaze of copper in the spotless kitchen, the gleaming windowpanes, the paint perpetually renewed.
'Good morning to you ma'am,' said Jack, rising. 'I trust I see you well?'
'Good morning, Commodore - that is to say Captain -you know I never complain. But I have a list here -, waving a paper with her symptoms written upon it - 'that will make the doctors stare. Will the hairdresser be here before them, I wonder? We are not to be talking about me, however: here is your son, Commodore, that is to say Captain. He has cut his first tooth.' She led the nurse forward by the elbow, and Jack gazed into the little pink, jolly, surprisingly human face among all the wool. George smiled at him, chuckled, and displayed his tooth: Jack thrust his forefinger into the wrapping and said, 'How are you coming along, eh? Prime, I dare say. Capital, ha, ha.' The baby looked startled, even stunned - the nurse backed away - Mrs Williams said, 'How can you call out so loud, Mr Aubrey?' with a reproachful look, and Sophie took the child into her arms, whispering, 'There, there, my precious lamb.' The women gathered round young George, telling one another that babies had sensitive ears - a thunder-clap might throw them into fits - little boys far more delicate than girls.
Jack felt a momentary and quite ignoble pang of jealousy at the sight of the women - particularly Sophie -concentrating their idiot love and devotion upon the little creature, but he had barely time to be ashamed of it, he had barely time to reflect 'I have been Queen of the May too long', before Amos Dray, formerly bosun's mate in HMS Surprise and, in the line of duty, the most conscientious, impartial flogger in the fleet before he lost his leg, shaded his mouth with his hand and in a deep rumble whispered, 'Toe the line, my dears.'
The two little pudding-faced twin girls in clean pinafores stepped forward to a particular mark on the carpet, and together, piping high and shrill, they cried, 'Good morning, sir.'
'Good morning, Charlotte. Good morning, Fanny,' said their father, bending down until his breeches creaked to kiss them. 'Why, Fanny, you have a lump on your forehead.'
'I'm not Fanny,' said Charlotte, scowling. 'I'm Charlotte.'
'But you are wearing a blue pinafore,' said Jack.
'Because Fanny put on mine; and she fetched me a swipe with her slipper, the - swab,' said Charlotte, with barely contained passion.
Jack cast an apprehensive look at Mrs Williams and Sophie, but they were still cooing over the baby, and almost at the same moment Bonden brought in the post. He put it down, a leather bag with Ashgrove Cottage engraved on its brass plate; and the children, their grandmother and their attendants leaving the room at this point, he begged pardon for being late: the fact of the matter was, it was market-day down there. Horses and cattle.
'Crowded, I dare say?'
'Uncommon, sir. But I found Mr Meiklejohn and told him you was not attending at the office till Saturday.' Bonden hesitated: Jack gave him a questioning look, and he went on, 'The fact of the matter is, Killick made a purchase, a legal purchase. Which he asked me to tell you first, your honour.'
'Aye?' said Jack, unlocking the bag. 'A nag, I suppose:
well, I wish him joy of it. He may put it in the old byre.'
'Not exactly a nag, sir, though it was in a halter: two legs and a skirt, if I may say so. A wife, sir.'
'What in God's name does he want with a wife?' cried Jack, staring.
'Why, sir,' said Bonden, blushing and looking quickly away from Sophie, 'I can't rightly say. But he bought one, legal. It seems her husband and she did not agree, so he brought her to market in a halter; and Killick, he bought her, legal - laid down the pewter in sight of one and all, and shook hands on it. There was three to choose on.'
'But you cannot possibly sell your wife - treat women like cattle,' cried Sophie. 'Oh fie, Jack; it is perfectly barbarous.'
'It does seem a little strange, but it is the custom, you know, a very old custom.'
'Surely you will never countenance such a wicked thing, Captain Aubrey?'
'Why, as to that, I should not like to go against custom: common law too, for all I know. Not unless there was any constraint - undue influence, as they say. Where would the Navy be without we followed our customs? Let him come in.'
'Well, Killick,' he said, when the pair stood before him, his steward an ugly slab-sided middle-aged man rendered more awkward than usual by his present bashfulness, the young woman a snapping black-eyed piece, a perfect sailor's delight. 'Well, Killick, I trust you are not rushing into matrimony without due consideration? Matrimony is a very serious thing.'
'Oh no, sir. I considered of it: I considered of it, why, the best part of twenty minutes. There was three to choose on, and this here - ' looking fondly at his purchase - 'was the pick of the bunch.'
'But, Killick, now I come to think of it, you had a wife in Mahon. She washed my shirts. You must not commit bigamy you know: it is against the law. You certainly had a wife in Mahon.'
'Which I had two, your honour, t'other in Wapping Dock; but they was more in the roving, uncertificated line, if you follow me, sir, not bought legal, the halter put into my hand.'
'Well,' said Jack, 'so I suppose you want to add her to the establishment. You will have to go in front of the parson first, however: cut along to the Rectory.'
'Aye aye, sir,' said Killick. 'Rectory it is.'
'Lord, Sophie,' said Jack when they were alone once more. 'What a coil!' He opened the bag. 'One from the Admiralty, another from the Sick and Hurt Board, and one that looks as though it must be from Charles Yorke -yes, that is his seal - for me; and two for Stephen, care of you.'
'I wish I could take care of him, poor dear,' said Sophie, looking at them. 'These are from Diana, too.' She laid them on a side table, to wait with another, addressed in the same bold determined hand to Stephen Maturin, Esqr., MD, and gazed at them in silence.
Diana Villiers was Sophie's cousin, a slightly younger woman, one with a far more dashing style and a black-haired, dark-blue-eyed beauty that some preferred to Mrs Aubrey's: at a time when Sophie and Jack had been separated, long before their marriage, both Jack and Stephen Maturin had done all they could to win Diana's favours; and in the result Jack very nearly wrecked both his career and his marriage, while Stephen, who had supposed she would marry him at last, had been most cruelly wounded by her departure for America under the protection of a Mr Johnson - so wounded that he had lost much of his taste for life. He had supposed she would marry him, for although his reason told him that a woman of her connections, beauty, pride and ambition could not be an equal match for the illegitimate son of an Irish officer in the service of His Most Catholic Majesty and a Catalan lady, a short, disagreeably plain man whose ostensible status was that of a naval surgeon, no more, his heart was entirely lost to her, and to his infinite cost it had overruled his head.
'Even before we heard she was in England, I knew that something was working on his mind, poor dear Stephen,' said Sophie. She would have added her ludicrous proof - a
new wig, new coats, a dozen of the finest cambric shirts -but since she loved Stephen as few brothers are ever loved, she could not bear any ridicule to touch him. She said, 'Jack, why do you not find him a decent servant? At the worst of times Killick would never have allowed you to go out in a shirt a fortnight old, odd stockings, and that dreadful old coat. Why has he never had a steady, reliable man?'