Favorite Passages from Patrick O’Brian
From The Reverse of the Medal:
For the first mile his road was a lane between high banks and hedges, with woods on the left hand and fields on the right - well-sprung wheat and hay - and the banks were starred all along with primroses, while the hedges had scores of very small cheerful talkative early birds, particularly goldfinches in their most brilliant plumage; and in the hay a corncrake was already calling. Then when the flat land began to rise and fall this lane branched out into two paths, the one carrying on over a broad pasture - a single piece of fifty or even sixty acres with some colts in it - and the other, now little more than a trace, leading down among the trees. Stephen followed the second; it was steep going, encumbered with brambles and dead bracken on the edge of the wood and farther down with fallen branches and a dead tree or two, but near the bottom he came to a ruined keeper’s cottage standing on a grassy plat, its turf kept short by the rabbits that fled away at his approach. The cottage had lost its roof long since and it was filled tight with lilac, not yet in bloom, while nettle and elder had overwhelmed the outbuilding behind; but there was still a stone bench by the door, and Stephen sat upon it, leaning against the wall. Down here in the hollow the night had not yet yielded, and there was still a green twilight. An ancient wood: the slope was too great and the ground too broken for it ever to have been cut or tended and the trees were still part of the primaeval forest; vast shapeless oaks, often hollow and useless for timber, held out their arms and their young fresh green leaves almost to the middle of the clearing, held them out with never a tremor, for down here the air was so still that gossamer floated with no perceptible movement at all. Still and silent: although far-off blackbirds could be heard away on the edge of the wood and although the stream at the bottom murmured perpetually the combe was filled with a living silence.
On the far side, high on the bank of the stream, there was a badger’s holt. Some years ago Stephen had watched a family of fox-cubs playing there, but now it seemed to him that the badgers were back: fresh earth had been flung out, and even from the bench he could distinguish a well-trodden path. ‘Perhaps I shall see one,’ he said; and after a while his mind drifted away and away, running through a Gloria he and Jack had heard in London, a very elaborate Gloria by Frescobaldi. ‘But perhaps it is too late,’ he went on, when the Gloria was ended and the light had grown stronger, a brighter green, almost the full light of dawn. Yet scarcely were these words formed in his mind before he heard a strong rustling, sweeping humping sound, and a beautifully striped badger came into sight on the other side of the brook, walking backwards with a load of bedding under its chin. It was an old fat badger, and it grumbled and cursed all the way. The last uphill stretch was particularly difficult, with the burden catching in hazel or thorn on either side and leaving long wisps, and just before the entrance the badger lifted its head and looked round, as though to say ‘Oh it is so bloody awkward.’ Then, having breathed, it took a fresh grip on the bundle, and with a final oath vanished backwards into the holt.
‘Why do I feel such an intense pleasure, such an intense satisfaction?’ asked Stephen. For some time he searched for a convincing reply, but finding none he observed ‘The fact is that I do.’ He sat on as the sun’s rays came slowly down through the trees, lower and lower, and when the lowest reached a branch not far above him it caught a dewdrop poised upon a leaf. The drop instantly blazed crimson, and a slight movement of his head made it show all the colours of the spectrum with extraordinary purity, from a red almost too deep to be seen through all the others to the ultimate violet and back again. Some minutes later a cock pheasant’s explosive call broke the silence and the spell and he stood up.
At the edge of the wood the blackbirds were louder still, and they had been joined by blackcaps, thrushes, larks, monotonous pigeons, and a number of birds that should never have sung at all. His way now led him through ordinary country, field after field, eventually reaching Jack’s woods, where the honey buzzards had once nested. But it was ordinary country raised to the highest power: the mounting sun shone through a faint veil with never a hint of glare, giving the colours a freshness and an intensity Stephen had never seen equalled. The green world and the gentle, pure blue sky might just have been created; and as the day warmed a hundred scents drifted through the air.
From The Commodore:
Stephen had been put to sleep in his usual room, far from children and noise, away in that corner of the house which looked down to the orchard and the bowling-green, and in spite of his long absence it was so familiar to him that when he woke about three he made his way to the window almost as quickly as if dawn had already broken, opened it and walked out on to the balcony. The moon had set: there was barely a star to be seen. The still air was delightfully fresh with falling dew, and a late nightingale, in indifferent voice, was uttering a routine jug-jug far down in Jack’s plantations; closer at hand, and more agreeable by far, nightjars churred in the orchard, two of them, or perhaps three, the sound rising and falling, intertwining so that the source could not be made out for sure. There were few birds he preferred to nightjars, but it was not that they had brought him out of bed: he stood leaning on the balcony rail and presently Jack Aubrey, in a summer-house by the bowling-green, began again, playing very gently in the darkness, improvising wholly for himself, dreaming away on his violin with a mastery that Stephen had never heard equalled, though they had played together for years and years.
Like many other sailors Jack Aubrey had long dreamed of lying in his warm bed all night long; yet although he could now do so with a clear conscience he often rose at unChristian hours, particularly if he were moved by strong emotion, and crept from his bedroom in a watch-coat, to walk about the house or into the stables or to pace the bowling-green. Sometimes he took his fiddle with him. He was in fact a better player than Stephen, and now that he was using his precious Guarnieri rather than a robust sea-going fiddle the difference was still more evident: but the Guarnieri did not account for the whole of it, nor anything like. Jack certainly concealed his excellence when they were playing together, keeping to Stephen’s mediocre level: this had become perfectly clear when Stephen’s hands were at last recovered from the thumbscrews and other implements applied by French counterintelligence officers in Minorca; but on reflexion Stephen thought it had been the case much earlier, since quite apart from his delicacy at that period, Jack hated showing away.
Now, in the warm night, there was no one to be comforted, kept in countenance, no one who could scorn him for virtuosity, and he could let himself go entirely; and as the grave and subtle music wound on and on, Stephen once more contemplated on the apparent contradiction between the big, cheerful, florid sea-officer whom most people liked on sight but who would never have been described as subtle or capable of subtlety by any one of them (except perhaps his surviving opponents in battle) and the intricate, reflective music he was now creating. So utterly unlike his limited vocabulary in words, at times verging upon the inarticulate.
‘My hands have now regained the moderate ability they possessed before I was captured,’ observed Maturin, ‘but his have gone on to a point I never thought he could reach: his hands and his mind. I am amazed. In his own way he is the secret man of the world; but I wish his music were happier.’
From H.M.S. Surprise:
The weather had freshened almost to coldness, for the wind was coming more easterly, from the chilly currents between Tristan and the Cape; the sloth was amazed by the change; it shunned the deck and spent its time below. Jack was in his cabin, pricking the chart with less satisfaction than he could have wished: progress, slow, serious trouble with the mainmast – unaccountable headwinds by night-- and sipping a glass of grog; Stephen was in the mizentop, teaching Bonden to write and scanning the sea for his first albatross. The sloth sneezed, and looking up, Jack caught its gaze fixed upon him; its inverted face had an expression of anxiety and concern. ‘Try a piece of this, old cock,’ he said, dipping his cake in the grog and proffering the sop. ‘It might put a little heart into you.’ The sloth sighed, closed its eyes, but gently absorbed the piece, and sighed again.
Some minutes later he felt a touch upon his knee: the sloth had silently climbed down and it was standing there, its beady eyes looking up into his face, bright with expectation. More cake, more grog: growing confidence and esteem. After this, as soon as the drum had beat the retreat, the sloth would meet him, hurrying toward the door on its uneven legs: it was given its own bowl, and it would grip it with its claws, lowering its round face into it and pursing its lips to drink (its tongue was too short to lap). Sometimes it went to sleep in this position, bowed over the emptiness.
‘In this bucket,’ said Stephen, walking into the cabin, ‘in this small half-bucket, now, I have the population of Dublin, London, and Paris combined: these animalculae-- what is the matter with the sloth?’ It was curled on Jack’s knee, breathing heavily: its bowl and Jack’s glass stood empty on the table. Stephen picked it up, peered into its affable bleary face, shook it, and hung it upon its rope. It seized hold with one fore and one hind foot, letting the others dangle limp, and went to sleep.
Stephen looked sharply round, saw the decanter, smelt to the sloth, and cried, ‘Jack, you have debauched my sloth.’
From The Fortune of War
‘Killick, Killick there: what’s amiss?’
‘Which it’s your scraper, sir, your number one scraper. The wombat’s got at it.’
‘Then take it away from him, for God’s sake.’
‘I duresn’t, sir,’ said Killick. ‘For fear of tearing the lace.’
‘Now, sir,’ cried the Captain, striding into the great cabin, a tall, imposing figure. ‘Now, sir,’ - addressing the wombat, one of the numerous body of marsupials brought into the ship by her surgeon, a natural philosopher - ‘give it up directly, d’ye hear me, there?’
The wombat stared him straight in the eye, drew a length of gold lace from its mouth, and then deliberately sucked it in again.
‘Pass the word for Dr Maturin,’ said the Captain, looking angrily at the wombat: and a moment later, ‘Come now, Stephen, this is coming it pretty high: your brute is eating my hat.’
‘So he is, too,’ said Dr Maturin. ‘But do not be so perturbed, Jack; it will do him no harm, at all. His digestive processes -,
At this point the wombat dropped the hat, shuffled rapidly across the deck and swarmed up into Dr Maturin’s arms, peering at close range into his face with a look of deep affection.
‘Well, I can keep it under my arm, together with my reports,’ said the Captain, picking up a bundle of papers and carefully fitting them round his gold-laced hat to conceal the tear.