This week I’ve been reading Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian. You’ve just got to love Jack Aubrey. He’s so boistrously cheerful, so cluelessly earnest. As a sailor he does very well, but socially he keeps putting his foot in it—particularly after he’s had a bit too much to drink, which is often:
…[Stephen] was not, indeed, inattentive; but his attention was not so wholly taken up that he did not hear Jack cry, ‘Oh, yes, yes! The rest of them are certainly coming ashore – they are lining the rail in their shore-going rig, with money in their pockets, their eyes staring out of their heads and their pricks a yard long.’ He could scarcely have avoided hearing it, for Jack had a fine carrying voice, and his remark happened to drop into one of those curious silences that occur even in very numerous assemblies.
Stephen regretted the remark; he regretted its effect upon the ladies the other side of the orange-tree, who were standing up and mincing away with many an indignant glance; but how much more did he regret Jack’s crimson face, the look of maniac glee in his blazing eyes and his triumphant, ‘You needn’t hurry, ladies – they won’t be allowed off the sloop till the evening gun.’
His friend Stephen, the ship’s doctor, knows little of Naval matters; the crew is alternately amused and appalled by his behavior. Here’s a bit that had my mate laughing out loud one night; Jack is giving instructions to his second-in-command on how to conduct an attack on a land target:
‘Me, sir?’ cried James.
‘Yes, you, sir; I am going ashore.’ There was no answering the decision of this statement, and after a pause he went on to the detailed arrangements. ‘Let us say ten minutes to run from the cove to the tower, and…’
‘Allow twenty, if you please,’ said Stephen. ‘You portly men of a sanguine complexion often die suddenly, from unconsidered exertion in the heat. Apoplexy – congestion.’
‘I wish, I wish you would not say things like that, Doctor,’ said Jack, in a low tone: they all looked at Stephen with some reproach and Jack added, ‘Besides, I am not portly.’
Admittedly sometimes my eyes would glaze over as the narrative grew thick with nautical terms and descriptions and explanations, but it was worth wading through them to get to the tale. I’m sure readers who actually know anything about sailing, particularly around the time of Lord Nelson, will find it absolutely fascinating.