An extract from a story based on the characters of Patrick O'Brian, by Uma
The night proceeded smoothly. A wonderful dinner was served, traditional English fare but leavened with exotic fruits and puddings rich in the cream of the coconut. Wine flowed as if it was water, all good vintages, and there was much merriment. Caroline watched from the top of the table where she sat with some old but important dignitaries, bored by their starchy conversation. Whenever she dared she would steal a glance at Captain Aubrey, far down the long mahogany table and surrounded by some of the young married women of the colony. They were billing and cooing at him and urging him to tell tales of the sea and battles. The captain was in good humour, jovial and merry, perhaps a little the worse for drink and was holding forth to his captive audience. A little of their conversation trailed along to where Caroline was sitting, aided by the booming strength of the speaker's voice:
"I shudder to regale you with the details of life at sea. It is all swab the decks and swill out the bilge. A few hundred men without the civilising influence of the fairer sex is hardly a place for the eyes or noses of tender ladies. I have had enough of life aboard! Ashore a sailor is more interested in 'a bawd' than 'aboard' if you smoke my meaning...ha, ha! That's a good one, Stephen, did you smoke that... 'Boarding a bawd, for all love, is more fun than boarding a French man o' war, what say you, sir!!
There was a restrained titter of nervous laughter from some of the women and a stony silence from the men. Caroline acted quickly to detract the attention from the captain's obvious faux pas. She rose. "Why ladies, I think it is a suitable moment for us to repair to the parlour while the men pass round the port. Come, let us leave them to their tiresome talk and we will amuse ourselves with a little chatter of our own. If you please..."
With a sweep of her fine silk gown, Lady Cavendish left the table. She had not failed to notice the kick that Maturin must have directed at his friend who was still rubbing his shin beneath the table. Nor did she miss the contrite look upon Aubrey's face when she passed him and she gave him a smiling half bow in return.
Jack Aubrey accepted the glass of port and selected a cigar from the humidor offered by a servant. He knew he had been a fool. What had possessed him to say that? It wasn't the first time that he had allowed himself to let slip with banter more suitable to the captain's cabin and an all male audience than the gentle conversation expected at a society gathering. What was the matter with him- had he lost all social etiquette in all these years at sea?
He had watched as beautiful Lady Cavendish glided past him in a cloud of fragrance with her serene calm; she had saved him from embarrassment- that much he knew. What an exquisite and intelligent woman! What must she think of him, a raw and uncouth sailor who had offended the entire company? He, for his part, was more entranced with her than ever.
While the port was passed, he said little, more subdued than was his normal manner. Even when asked to comment on his recent action, usually the sign for Jack to embark upon a long and rousing description (replete with models chosen from the tableware), he merely gave a brief and vague account of himself. Stephen saw his discomfort and wondered if it were more than simple embarrassment. He had seen the look that passed between his friend and the governor's wife and he knew Jack well enough. The man was helpless in the gaze of a beautiful woman and, although he was not a predator or a cove who would ruin a woman's reputation, if the lady gave any encouragement, he would be a willing lecher. Maturin determined to nip this in the bud before it even started; it would be for the good of all: Jack himself, the charming Lady Caroline and Sophie, dear gentle Sophie back at home.
When the gentlemen joined the ladies for the ball, Stephen kept a close watch on Jack. He seemed to be on his best behaviour, dancing with a few of the younger women but retiring to taste the punchbowl, complaining of the humidity of the night. Meanwhile Lady Caroline was entertained by some older gentlemen, each leading her in a gentle gavotte. All seemed well.
"Ah Maturin, at last, a chance to talk to a man of science. How d'ye put up with that captain of yours? A complete knave- what possessed him to speak like that before the fillies? Come, let's take a turn in the library- I have a most interesting book on Asiatic birds. We really must take a trip to one of the smaller islands...you can see hornbills of several species and Birds of Paradise...."
As Stephen was led away, Jack slipped out onto the wide marble veranda beyond the pillared archways. There was a breath of breeze and he loosened his necktie slightly to cool himself down, holding the cold punch cup to his forehead. It was in this pensive mood that Lady Caroline came upon him.
"Captain Aubrey, forgive me, I did not know that there was anyone out here," said Caroline with a sweet smile, having made it her business to know where he was all evening.
"My Lady," Jack bowed slightly. "I fear I am over heated. This infernal tropical climate and a dress uniform..."
Caroline held up her hand. " Do not apologise, sir. It is hot and there is no sign of rain today. But a glorious night, all the same! Look at the sky. Have you ever seen a more beautiful night? So clear! So full of stars!"
It was an exceptionally fine night sky, but Jack had seen many clear starry nights on many lonely watches. While Lady Caroline searched the heavens, his eyes stayed firmly on the twin mounds of Venus and the long white neck of his companion.
"Truly a magnificent sight. Rarely beheld but never forgotten," Jack murmured.
Caroline caught his gaze and recognised the moment. He was speaking of her. This was an amorous advance, one she should slap down with a firm hand. But she did not wish to.
"I saw such a sight one day earlier in the week. As I was painting on the cliff tops."
"An unforgettable sight? How so? What caused you to remark it?"
"It was a ship of the line, moored at the far end of the western dock. I observed a man aboard who seemed to me to be the very ideal of masculine virility- vir verus. Such a sight is rare in most women's experience. We make do the best we can."
Caroline moved as if to leave but Jack stayed her arm. She gasped, a little surprised at his overt touch. His hand fell away. "Lady Stanhope. What was the name of the ship? What was the rank of the man you espied?"
"I believe it was the Surprise and the man was its captain."
A silence fell between them as they stared openly into each other's eyes. It was in that pose that Stephen found them.
A second was all it took for Stephen to appraise the situation. He was as familiar with the mating ritual of Jack Aubrey as he was of any other mammal that he had studied. Direct action was required to pre-empt further and ill-advised intercourse between the couple before him.
"Why Jack, there you are, for all love! They are just about to deal a hand of cards in the library and we need another fellow. Hurry along there, be a good man. Lady Cavendish! My apologies, I did not see you there. May I steal the good Captain from you, if you please?"
Startled by the loud and cheery arrival of Doctor Maturin, both Caroline and Jack blushed and looked away; sure proof of libidinous intent in Stephen's estimation. Jack bowed abruptly and strode away, his face revealing to Stephen his annoyance at the interruption. As they entered the gallery where the dance was in full swing, Jack hissed at Stephen:
"Since when have you been my nursemaid? Can I not be allowed to congregate freely on a social occasion without you fussing and fiddling around me?"
"If I were your nurse I would have slapped your rump and sent you to bed without your supper for your thoughtless buffoonery! You have almost insulted the entire table with your nonsense and then to be dallying alone on the veranda with the governor's wife! Are you quite insane? I've seen more faculties on some of those poor wretches in Bedlam," Stephen replied, not to be intimidated by his friend.
"I was merely commenting on the warmth of the night and the clarity of the sky."
"You were on the prowl, Jack, and your eyes were firmly on the lady's bosom as hers were on you. May I remind you that you have a wife and she is carrying your child, due to give birth at any moment? It would appear that I am the only one who remembers that salient fact tonight."
Jack growled with temper and lowered his voice as they entered the library. "You know nothing of the nature of marriage, doctor, as much as you may know about the workings of the human body. There is a world of difference between the marriage bed and that of a man and his mistress. Have some milk of human kindness – surely you would agree that a man who reins in his natural tendencies may cause himself some irremediable harm?"
"And a man who doesn't may end up facing a duel and causing himself some mortal harm. My last word on't."
The two warring friends sat down across the card table, glaring at each other. Jack lost heavily, Stephen carried off a sizeable purse.
Mrs Sarah Meredith was holding her salon. As the senior wife of the East India Company on Prince of Wales Island, she had taken it upon herself to hold a musical evening every month to which she welcomed the British residents of the colony and any illustrious visitors to the tropical island. This month her dear friend, Lady Cavendish, had suggested she invite the famous botanist Dr. Maturin...and didn't he have a good friend, a dashing sea captain? Perhaps it would be merry to invite him too?
The guests were all seated in a semicircle in her parlour to hear Mrs. Meredith sing and play a few of her favourite pieces: folk songs and a few arias from Purcell, her particular favourite. Sarah Meredith was a competent pianist and a passable soprano, but had delusions of much more talent than she actually possessed. In this small outpost of the Empire, it was easy for her to appear as a lady of high artistic sensibilities whereas in London she would neither have access to people of Caroline Cavendish's class nor would she have dared hold such a salon. But colonial life makes lords and ladies of mediocre folk- how else to explain the charm of the lotus-eaters' life?
Jack and Stephen took seats at the back of the gathering allowing the ladies to take the foremost rows. As soon as Mrs. Meredith began, Stephen gritted his teeth and composed his face into a pleasant grimace. He was a veteran of such tortuous occasions and tried to think of something else, most notably a rather curious stag beetle that was climbing slowly across the cornice above him. Jack was less judgmental and sat placidly listening to the repertoire, tapping his foot in his annoying manner, along with the beat. If Stephen had dropped his eyes, however, from his entomological investigation, and followed Jack's line of vision, he might have noticed that Jack was completely oblivious to the music and the shrill soprano- his eyes were feasting on the charms of Lady Cavendish, who was sitting by the piano and turning the pages of the music for her operatic friend.
When the recital was concluded and refreshments were passed round, Jack went forward to pay his compliments to Mrs Meredith, who simpered and preened in his presence. At that moment, another dear friend, Mrs. Pettigrew, came over to add her comments and Jack was allowed a moment in the presence of the fragrant lady who was the actual focus of his attentions.
"Lady Caroline, your servant, ma'am. I must apologise for my forward behaviour the other night. I was a little flushed with your excellent wine. I fear I have been too little in respectable company and easily forget myself..."
"Not at all, Captain Aubrey. You did not cause me any discomfort, in fact very much the opposite. But your apology is prettily delivered and I accept it willingly." Lady Caroline replied with a flutter of her fan.
She smiled and her large blue eyes lit up with merriment. Jack had never seen such an impish grin; there was devilment in her eyes, despite her correct behaviour. She really was a most intoxicating woman. He did not know what to say. He wanted to sweep her in his arms and kiss her budding pink lips but even he was aware that that was beyond all countenance. He wanted to see her again, alone, where he might talk to her and maybe, just maybe, she would allow him such a kiss. He would not presume to insult her with anything more intimate...but just one kiss?
"Sir? Do you paint?" He realised that Lady Caroline was speaking to him.
"I paint every day. Usually I paint on my estate- there are many wonderful subjects in the grounds alone but I was thinking of taking a drive tomorrow to the other side of the island. There is a most enchanting littoral there, a sandy haven called Tanjong Bungah on the seventh mile from Batu Ferringhi, which means 'Frenchman's Mile' in the local dialect. I intend to take my carriage and my maid. It is quite safe and I hope to capture some fine seascapes. About midmorning. And I will bring a picnic luncheon. For two adults." Caroline finished speaking and inclined her head: "Good evening Captain Aubrey!" And off she moved through the crowd.
Jack stood and contemplated her words. Why had she told him about her painting trip if not to encourage him to join her? The place, the time, only a servant to accompany her- and an invitation to lunch with her! Should he dare to accept her? What harm was it to ride out to the sea and share a picnic? Jack was not a man given to long bouts of introspection. Given a dilemma he generally found a speedy solution – as he did on this occasion. He would see the ostler first thing in the morning and hire a good horse. A day by the beach would suit him very well.
"You seem very pensive, Jack. I'm most satisfied to see you are conducting yourself with more decorum. Lady Cavendish is here and you haven't leered over at her once. Perhaps there's hope for you yet, my dear!" Stephen observed as they drank Mrs. Meredith's over- sweet sherry and picked at the tiny cucumber sandwiches, which Jack looked at with disdain. But he smiled benignly at his friend. Sometimes Stephen was a complete wooden top....
© 2003 Rose Gan