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How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck (1)

The wind, running at ten knots, had shifted quarter in the night and now came up out of the south against the current, raising a light chop. H.M.S. Surprise was starting to have to tack as it beat southwards into a breeze that was strangely moist for this part of the world and beginning to form streamers of mist along the wave tops. The sun became more and more a milk-white disc in a featureless, colorless, gradually thickening sky. White gulls had flocked and wheeled high around the masts in the morning hours, over from the African Atlantic coast, but were now nowhere to be seen. Brows, shoulders, and chests dripped perspiration along the freshly holystoned decks. The accustomed creak of mast, hull and rigging gradually became noticeable by its absence.

Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin were methodically working their way through a prodigiously credible madeira which Surprise had pressed from l’Ennilenape, a captured French 42; which madeira was accompanied by assorted biscuits and pots of jam and little jars of nondescript vegetables marinated in briny liquids. A shudder of pain wracked through Stephen at the thought of that unlucky ship; the Admiralty’s prize court, bowing to pressure from the Colonies, had acceded to a request from the NCAA to disallow the capture and all prize money, owing to the stereotypical name and logo on the ship.

“The greenish vegetables have a distinctive, acrid odor and taste, my dear” ventured Stephen.

“They should certainly taste sharp, soaking as they are in vinegar, or didn’t you notice?” Jack speared another and another. “I grew them in my own garden, and harvested them myself as well.”

They were briefly interrupted by Mr Fanshaw, excitedly informing the Doctor that Babbington had eaten eight spiders in a row, claiming that everyone swallows spiders in their sleep, so that it was far better to eat them while awake, so as to select the tenderest specimens available.

“Stuff!” exclaimed Maturin. “As you can plainly see in “Snopes’ Guide to Nautical and Non-Nautical Ailments of Seamen” and confirmed in Webb’s “Maturin’s Medicine,” the sleep-swallowed spiders is a myth!”

When peace returned, they discussed anew Aubrey’s labours in his gardens.

“I knew that you’d grown and harvested a fourth of a bushel of those vegetables, as soon as I learned that you had appropriated for yourself the Frenchie’s two butts of madeira,” Stephen remarked.

Jack’s massive Crowe-like brow furrowed. “How could you tell that?” he asked.

“Elementary, my sweet petunia. He that would take a tun would pick a peck of pickled peppers.”

© 2005 Susan Wenger