A scene from sometime during the interlude between The Yellow Admiral and The Hundred Days...
With a blue-crowned flurry, the kingfisher abandoned his fishing perch on a dead branch over the brook, disturbed in part by the splashing of the horse, a serviceable and sweet tempered animal named Lolla. Stephen Maturin, in no particular hurry, aiming his subfusc clad person ultimately in the direction of London and a meeting of the Royal Society, but more immediately Ashgrove cottage, was no more now than ten English miles away, how many leagues or cable lengths he could not in all honor say. He was taking his ease against an ash tree, sitting quietly, thinking. The unused lane that branched away from the road, instinctively turned upon, seemed to lead into a wooded area both secluded and undisturbed looking. Not perhaps so hoary and fabled a place as Sir Joseph's beetle wood, where lurked even yet nondescript species of the smaller fauna, but still busy with life forms. At least four varieties of dragonfly patrolled the stream with their abrupt precise flight. Muscles directly attached to wings, he mused. A good spot to have finished the paper wrapped leg of roast fowl that had contributed a small grease stain to his pocket.
Now, meal consumed, and in a reverie of satiety and fatigue, he smoked a small paper cigar and let his mind wander on the subjects of comparative anatomy, his own dissections of cetacean mammals, the kingfisher (now returned) and the curious report of the discovery of the preserved image of a lizard with apparent wings and feathers in a slate quarry in central Germany. A feathered lizard, for all love. But when on earth did it live? Impressions of a giant fern leaf had surfaced in the coal workings near Newcastle, to the wonder of the Society. Giant dragonflies. Fossilized bones of an alarming size too, and certainly not cetacean, had made their way into collections both here and on the continent. He intended to view some of these new wonders in London soon. A growing line of ants and a few greedy hornets pitched in to finish his meal.
One of his early notebooks, he recalled, from his student days in Paris, contained speculation on time-lines, whether it could be true that some species lived earlier in time than others, were supplanted by later ones that arose by some process not beyond the reach of human reason, speculations too on what would consist of useful evidence for deducing age, sequence. And yet ancient forms such as the dragonfly he now watched hover motionless for a moment, persevered, or at least many species of them did. His training in intelligence, his gift for it, a source of both private pride and dark shame, made him sensitive to subtle patterns in apparent disorder. How long life had existed seemed the key point. How old, how old was the Earth? And inside the question of proof, of evidence, lived an unexamined feeling of vertigo, a whiff of unexplainable terror.
A disturbance in the water and small splash drew his attention to an otter just then catching a small eel. Clambering nimbly up the opposite bank, the sleek headed creature consumed the still struggling eel head first, looked him in the eye, then slid quickly on it's belly back into the stream and disappeared around the next bend. How like, he thought, letting himself breathe again, in it's size and habit, to the duck-billed ovo-positing mammal that nearly killed him with it's poisonous spurs in Australia. Water crustaceans and insects instead of fish, but then the otter delights in crayfish too, and probably the larval states of caddis flies and such fare - his thoughts floated - not a placental mammal to be found in the great spanking prodigious expanse of the place. Small tree dwelling kangaroos. Botany Bay well named, sure.
He shifted his somewhat tender hams on the tree roots he had chosen to sit on, stretched his legs, and leaping from the grass just beyond his heels of his boots, into the water with a plop, went a large fat frog, unseen until then. He luxuriated in the uncommon situation of not being hastened by the demands of duty or the service, far, for the moment, from being hurried away from unimagined natural wonders by the infernal exhortation `there's not a moment to lose', with sometimes a file of marines to punctuate the insistence.
He stood, dusting the tobacco ash from his front, preparing to go, thinking on things hidden in the grass, hidden in plain view. Under this messy clutter of superficial careless perceiving, of everyday notions and all those understandings that seem right because thinking of them so gives a man comfort, the world lay there, he thought, as it always has, waiting to be discovered. He experienced a glow of mental excitement, filled with recollection of the mania of curiosity that had blessed and tormented his youth and had sent him creeping through fen and forest, looking closely at the vermiform and the multi legged, making notes and detailed drawings, when others his age played games. And feeling the age in his joints, he ruefully conceded there was little time to waste.
Lolla laid her muzzle on his shoulder, startling him, and her liquid eyes questioned him.
`Just so, my dear,' he said, automatically bringing from his pocket a lump of sugar.
And mounting her, he turned from the wood and away, for now, from his tangle of thoughts.
© 2001 Keith Peterson