'Indeed, he was not a well-liked man at all, at all. They say his surgeon and another medico killed him with a black draught or something of that kind: but slowly, you understand me now, like the husband of one of those arsenic wives eager to be a widow but not choosing to swing for it.'
'From my acquaintance with his lordship, what you say does not surprise me in the least. On reflection, I believe I should offer each or either of the physical gentlemen a glass of brandy, were the occasions to offer. Do you see Surprise start her stuns'l sheet not to outrun her station?'
'Aye. She was always a wonderfully swift sailer; and now they have done her proud, as trim as a royal yacht. Webster saw her in young Seppings' yard where they were fitting her out regardless, diagonal bracing and everything you can think of -- fitting her out for a hydrographical voyage. A lovely little craft.'
For some time they discussed the ship's perfections; their practised hands holding her steady in their telescopes; but then, the line being perfectly re-established, a cable's length apart, Arrowsmith clapped his glass to and said, 'Another death was of quite a different kind of man: Governor Wood of Sierra Leone. He was a fine fellow, very popular in the service, and he kept a noble table -- invited whole wardrooms when the King's ships came in; and youngsters too.'
'I remember him very well. John Kneller and I and nearly all our messmates dined with him after some cruel weather off the River Plate and weeks of damned short commons -- a sprung butt had drowned the bread-room. Lord, how we ate, and laughed, and sang! So he is dead. Well, God rest him, say I. Though when everything is said and done, we must all come to it; which may be some comfort to those that go before. A very handsome wife, as I recall, but on the learned side, which made her neighbours shy.'
'The breeze is strengthening out there. Dover has let fly her foretop-gallant sheets.'
The gust -- the series of gusts -- disturbed the picture-book regularity for a while, but it was restored after a remarkably short interval (all hands knew that they were being watched not only by an uncommonly exigent commodore and the even more formidable Commander-in-Chief Lord Keith, but also by an increasingly numerous band of highly-informed, highly-critical observers on shore) and presently the two lieutenants' conversation resumed.
'And then there was another what you might call naval death, a good deal earlier than the others but only now reported. Did you ever meet Dr Maturin?'
'I don't know that I did, but I have often heard of him. A very clever doctor, they say -- called in to treat Prince William -- always sails with Jack Aubrey.'
'That's the man. Well, he has a wife. They live with the Aubreys at his big place in Dorset -- but of course you know it, being a Dorset man.'
'Yes. Woolcombe; or Woolhampton as some say. It is rather far for us and we do not visit, but I have been to one or two of the Blackstone's meets there and we used to see Mrs Aubrey and Mrs Maturin at the Dorchester assembly. Mrs Maturin breeds Arabs: a very good horsewoman and an uncommon fine whip.'
'Well, yes ... so they said. But do you know a place called Maiden Oscott?'
'Only too well, with its damned awkward bridge.'
'The report gives no details, but it seemed she pitched over -- the whole shooting-match, coach, horses and all, pitched over right down into the river, and only the groom was brought out alive.'
'Oh, my God!' cried Edwards: and after a pause, 'My wife disliked her; but she was a very beautiful woman. Some people said she was a demi-rep ... she had some astonishing jewels ... there was some talk of a Colonel Cholmodeley ... and it is said the marriage was not a happy one. But she is dead, God rest her. I say no more. Yet I doubt I ever see her like again.'
Reprinted by permission of Georges Borchardt, Inc. Copyright © 1998 by Patrick O'Brian. Published by WW Norton and Co. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission from Georges Borchardt, Inc at 136 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022. All rights reserved.
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