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Authors: Patrick O'Brian

The Nutmeg of Consolation

BOOK: The Nutmeg of Consolation
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The Nutmeg of Consolation
Patrick O'Brian

PATRICK O'BRIAN

The Nutmeg of Consolation

W.W. Norton & Company

New York * London

Chapter One

A hundred and fifty-seven castaways on a desert island in the South China Sea, the survivors of the wreck of HMS Diane, which had struck upon an uncharted rock and had there been shattered by a great typhoon some days later: a hundred and fifty-seven, but as they sat there round the edge of a flat bare piece of ground between high-water mark and the beginning of the forest they sounded like the full complement of a ship of the line, for this was Sunday afternoon, and the starboard watch, headed by Captain Aubrey, was engaged in a cricket-match against the Marines, under their commanding officer, Mr Welby.

It was a keenly-contested match and one that aroused the strongest passions, so that roaring, hooting, cheers and cat-calls followed almost every stroke; and to an impartial observer it was yet another example of the seaman's power of living intensely in the present, with little or no regard for futurity: a feckless attitude, but one combined with uncommon fortitude, since the atmosphere was as wet as a living sponge and from behind its clouds the sun was sending down a most oppressive heat. The only impartial observer at hand was Stephen Maturin, the ship's surgeon, who thought cricket the most tedious occupation known to man and who was now slowly climbing away from it through the forest that covered the island, with the intention first of killing a boar, or in default of a boar some of the much less popular ring-tailed apes, and then of reaching the north side where the bird's-nest-soup swallows nested. On the rounded top of a knoll, where the boar-track led inland, he paused and looked down on the southern shore. Well out to sea on his left hand the reef on which the frigate had struck, now white with the broken water of a neap at three-quarter ebb but then invisible beneath a spring-tide flood; far to his right the point where a large piece of the wreck had come ashore; left again to the scoured-out inlet to which the wreckage had been towed by the one remaining boat, carefully prised apart and reassembled in the present elegant ribbed skeleton of the schooner that was to carry them to Batavia as soon as it was planked, decked and rigged; well up the slope from this inlet the camp under the lee of the forest in which they had sheltered from the typhoon that destroyed the stranded frigate, drowned many of her people, almost all her livestock and almost all her powder; and then immediately below him the broad expanse, firm and level, where the white-clad figures flitted to and fro - white-clad not so much because this was cricket as because it was Sunday, with mustering by divisions (necessarily shaved and in a clean shirt) followed by church.

It might seem the very height of levity to be playing cricket with the schooner far from finished, with stores very low and with the little island's resources in coconuts, boars and ring-tailed apes nearly exhausted. Yet Stephen knew very well what was in Jack Aubrey's mind. The people had behaved extremely well so far, working double tides; but they were not a crew made up solely of man-of-war's men, bred to the service and serving together for years at a time; at least a third had been pressed into the Navy; there were several recent draughts; and there were some King's hard bargains, including two or three sea-lawyers. Yet even if they had all been seamen, serving in the Navy since the beginning of the war, some relaxation was essential, and they had been looking forward to this match with the liveliest anticipation. The camphor-wood or palm-rib bats lacked some of the elegance of willow, but the sailmaker had sewed a wholly professional ball, using leather that could be spared from gaff-jaws, and the players had swayed away on all top-ropes to do their service credit. Furthermore, cricket formed some small part of that penny glass of ceremony which upheld the precious spirit, not indeed to be compared to the high rituals aboard such as divisions and the solemn reading of the Articles of War, to say nothing of burials and rigging church, but by no means inconsiderable as a way of imposing order upon chaos.

What Stephen did not fully appreciate was the degree of pleasure that Jack took in this particular ceremony. As a captain Aubrey was exceedingly worried by the shortage of food and marine stores, particularly cordage, by the near absence of powder, and by the coming total absence of arrack and tobacco; but as a cricketer he knew that close concentration was necessary on any pitch, above all on one like this, which more nearly resembled a stretch of white concrete than any Christian meadow, and when he came in second wicket down, the yeoman of the sheets having been bowled by the sergeant of the Marines for a creditable sixteen, he took centre and looked about him with an eager, piercing, predatory eye, tapping the block-hole with his bat, wholly taken up with the matter in hand.

'Play,' cried the sergeant: he took two little skips and bowled a twisting lob, pitched well up. 'Never mind manoeuvres,' Nelson had said. 'Always go at them.' Jack obeyed his hero, leapt out, caught the ball before it landed and drove it straight at the bowler's head. The grim sergeant neither flinched nor ducked but seized it as it flew. 'Out,' cried Edwards, the only civilian aboard and therefore a perfect umpire. 'Out, sir, I am afraid.'

Amid the roaring of the soldiers and the universal moan of disappointment from the seamen - for the Captain was well-liked both as an officer and as a dashing bat once his eye was in - Jack said 'Well held, sergeant,' and walked off to the three coconut-palms (long since bare of fruit) that served them as a pavilion.

'Let it not be an omen,' said Stephen, slinging his rifle and turning away. It was an exceptionally fine rifle, a breech-loading Joe Manton, and he had inherited it from Mr Fox, the British envoy they had brought out in the Diane to counteract the French negotiations with the Sultan of Pulo Prabang. Fox had succeeded; he had obtained a treaty of mutual assistance; but in his eagerness to carry it home he had set off to sail the two hundred miles to Batavia in the ship's stout and well-manned pinnace while the Diane was lying quietly on her reef, neaped, immovable until the next spring tide; and he had been destroyed by the typhoon that destroyed the frigate.

A very fine rifle; Stephen was a deadly shot; and since there was so very little powder - far too little for a general blazing away with muskets - he was the camp's chief hunter. This was a relief for everybody. During the first fortnight he had worn himself raw, pulling on ropes, helping to saw wood, beating home treenails and wedges, and he had suffered much from the inherent malignity of things - no rope, pulled over the most innocent surface, that did not succeed in twisting upon itself or catching in some minute anfractuosity or protrusion; no saw that did not deviate from its line; no mallet that did not strike his already bruised and purple-swollen hand - but his companions had suffered even more from having to re-tie all his knots and rescue him from improbable dangers, perpetually keeping one eye on the Doctor and one on their work. Even when put to dig out the choked well, the softest job in hand, he contrived to send a pick through William Gorges' foot.

Yet as a hunter for the pot he was of great value to the crew. Not only was he thoroughly at home with the weapon, but he was an experienced field-naturalist, long accustomed to following a track, to the silent, upwind approach, and to indefinite, motionless waiting. These were necessary qualifications, because although he had two kinds of swine, the bearded pig and the babirussa, they had both been hunted at some not very remote period and from the beginning they had been wary. Now the survivors were not only warier by far, but they were also very much thinner on the ground; and whereas in the first week he had been able to provide all hands with twice the ship's ordinary allowance of pork in an evening's stroll, now he had to sweat over the whole island, sometimes for quite a small creature - sometimes indeed missing even that, his damaged powder fizzling in the breech.

The trail he was following at present, however, was more promising than any he had seen for some while. It was recent, so recent that when it reached the edge of a spiny rattan-patch he saw the outer rim of the deep hoof-print fall in: what is more, this animal was almost certainly a babirussa of nine or ten score, the first he had seen since Thursday week. He was glad of it, because the ship's company included several Jews and many Mahometans, united only in their hatred of swine's flesh; but a willing mind could accept the babirussa, with his extraordinary horn-like upper pair of tusks and his long legs, as the kind of deer that might be expected on so remote an island.

'I shall go round and wait for him,' said Stephen, and he fetched a long cast round the rattan-brake, walking slowly in the heat. The animal had almost certainly gone to sleep. The boars of this country, like all the other boars he had ever known, were deeply conservative, devoted to the beaten track; and by now he knew most of their paths. At the other end of this one he climbed a tree that commanded the way out of the brake, and in its broad mossy crutch he sat at his ease, embowered in orchids, of a species, a habit and colour he had never seen before. The low sun appeared through a gap in the clouds, sinking towards Sumatra? Biliton? The west in any case. And sloping under the canopy it lit the orchid, the whole spray of fifty or sixty orchid flowers, with singular brilliance, vermilion in the wet, shining green; he was still contemplating it and its attendant insects when the boar began moving again in the rattan-brake. The sound came nearer; the boar emerged, standing motionless, its square snout twitching from side to side; with a detached, clinical look on his face Stephen dropped it dead and climbed down from the tree.

He had an apron in his knapsack and he put it on to gralloch his pig, because although he had no objection to a little blood on his clothes, Killick had; and Killick's high nasal complaining righteous voice, going on and on, was so disagreeable that the inconvenience of an apron on so heavy a day was nothing to it. He also had a light tackle that allowed him to heave the beast about single-handed. This was the one piece of something like seamanship that he had studied with profit: Bonden, the captain's coxswain, had spent hours showing him how to make one end fast and how to reeve the fall through the channels; and as long as he held the top block uppermost he often succeeded at the first try. He succeeded now, and stepping back he surveyed the boar with real satisfaction: nearer eleven score than ten. And there were few dishes Jack Aubrey preferred to soused pig's face, while for his own part he was fond of a pair of cold crubeens. He hung his apron on a branch to guide those who would carry the babirussa down and wiped his hands on his jacket - on his jacket, as he realized a moment too late, gazing at the stain on the fine white linen.

'I shall try to get it off at the swallows' pool,' he said, but with no conviction. At one period in his childhood he had been under the rule of a Dominican tertiary called Sor Luisa, one of the older, more respectable branch of the Torquemadas of Valladolid (his cousin and godfather was very particular about these things), a woman for whom cleanliness was godliness; and his attempts at 'getting it off' had never deceived her for a moment. Now she had been replaced by a lean ageless weatherbeaten pigtailed seaman with one gold earring and a shrewish penetrating voice. It was not even that Killick was his servant, with a servant's rights; he was Jack Aubrey's steward, Stephen's man being a gentle, witless young Malay by the name of Ahmed; but Preserved Killick had known both the Captain and the Doctor so long and had acquired such a moral ascendancy in certain fields that Ahmed was no protection at all.

As Stephen had feared, the swallows' pool did nothing to remove the stain, but with a cowardice unworthy of his age and education he concealed the blood and peritoneal fluid with a superimposed film of dirt from the water's edge, adding some algae for good measure. He called the pool the swallows' because it was near the birds' most spectacular cliff, not because they used the soft grey mud for building: far from it, indeed. The wholly sheltered nests were pearly white and translucent, with never a hint of moss or vegetable fibre, far less of mud: these were the nests deepest in the caves or rather clefts in the seaward precipice, and Stephen could see the best only from one place, where his particular cave soared up from a broad, deep stretch of shingle two hundred feet below to a narrow fissure at the top. He had an indifferent head for heights and the upper yards of even a frigate filled him with paralysing dread, scarcely to be overcome by the strongest effort of will, but here he could lie flat, with his arms and legs spread out, his body firmly pressed against the warm level rock and only his face hanging over the void, gazing at the birds below - the cloud of little grey birds that flew in at the widest part of the cave, whirled about at an extraordinary speed and then shot off from the general vortex, each to its own nest. He leant farther into the cavity, his hands spread to shade his eyes, and almost at once his wig fell off, turning and turning until it vanished among the bird-filled shadows far below. 'Hell and death,' he said, for although it was only an old scratch-wig worn almost bare, Killick had recently curled and whitened its sides (there was nothing to be done to the top): and in any case he felt naked without it. The vexation lasted little longer than the slow turning fall, however; his wild attempt at catching the wig had brought him into a much better position: certainly it meant that the sun shone right on to the back of his unprotected head, but it allowed him to lie there in the utmost comfort, his face far deeper into the cleft. His body was perfectly relaxed, and as his eyes grew even more used to the dimness of the cavern he could make out the nests themselves, stretching away and away in rows, half-cups touching one another, row upon row, covering the rock-wall from sixty feet above high-water mark almost all the way up, the finest and whitest being not the top rows, which had a certain amount of wind-drifted dirt upon them, but those about twenty down, in a narrow chimney. These were the nests that were sold for their weight in silver among the Chinese; and as he had expected, the nestlings, the scrupulously clean nestlings, two to each brood, would be ready to fly any day now. Yet as he lay there, glass after glass, oblivious of the roasting sun and watching the whirl of parent-birds bringing food and carrying away faecal sacs, a frown came over his face. He concentrated all his attention upon one particularly well-lit nest, and slowly his suspicions were confirmed: again and again the incoming bird perched on its rim with all four toes pointing forward.

BOOK: The Nutmeg of Consolation
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