Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | March 19, 2012

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 7: The Surgeon’s Mate


Which it describes what Diana Villiers must tolerate to be with Dr. Stephen Maturin (SPOILERS):

  • Put up with unmitigated, educated obstinacy.
  • Accept that you will not always know everything about him.
  • Balance his awkwardness with your poise and radiance at academic events.
  • Be prepared that he will disappear on dangerous, secret missions with no real expectation of return.
  • Understand that as long as he is on assignment with Capt. Jack Aubrey, there is always the possibility that he may wreck on a lee shore.
  • Expect that you may lose things very valuable to yourself to help him.
  • Know that he may end up imprisoned, even tortured, and that his only possibility of escape may be by making a deal with a dangerous agent.
  • Love him, in spite of it all.

Not that Maturin has it easy dealing with his equally stubborn mate.  Not that Maturin is alone having woman troubles.  Yet The Surgeon’s Mate is, even through sea battles, tense diplomatic negotiations, and close calls with French interrogation, above all a love tale, if only as it could be written by Patrick O’Brian.  We pick up where we left off at the end of The Fortune of War

“H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake into Halifax Harbour” by John Christian Schetky

(1) The battered Shannon brings the battered Chesapeake into Halifax, Nova Scotia.  Grave feelings among the crew quickly give way to cheer as they are given a heroes’ welcome.  The curious trio of Capt. Jack Aubrey, Dr. Stephen Maturin, and Diana Villiers goes ashore.  Aubrey longs for news of home but instead finds that two of his foes, Harte and Wray, have achieved further power in the Admiralty.  Maturin delivers the coup of Johnson’s papers to Major Beck, the Marine in charge of intelligence.  He acquires a certificate of local liberty for Villiers, who is otherwise viewed as a renegade British citizen.  Although they are barely able to find a bed in the crowded town, Maturin finally gets sleep.  Villiers is happy as she prepares for a celebratory ball, but she once more rebuffs Maturin’s insistence on getting married.

“HMS Asia docked in Halifax Harbour, 1797” by George Gustavus Lennock

(2) At the ball, Maturin coolly observes how the naval officers are bound together by uniform and battle scars, while their wives show more marked class variance.  Villiers, resplendent in a dress from Maturin and the necklace from Johnson, dances the social dance as Maturin falls into the music.  Aubrey is pulled out of depression by ample grog and the attentions of a local woman, Ms. Smith, but unfortunately falls for her seduction.  The next morning, Aubrey receives letters from Sophie.  Maturin again has to save Aubrey from himself.  Fortunately, Villiers brings news that two ships, a packet and the Nova Scotia, are to sail swiftly to England with the news of the Shannon‘s victory.  Villiers again avoids Maturin’s marriage proposal, especially as she is carrying Johnson’s child.

“A Two Masted Clipper Ship and the Gloucester Fishing Boat Ephraim Howe in a Fog off the Grand Banks” by Antonio Nicolo Gasparo Jacobsen

(3) Aubrey, Maturin, and Villiers set sail on the packet Diligence, under Captain and owner Mr. Dalgeish.  They are soon chased by a privateer, which Dalgeish identifies as the schooner Liberty, and another, unknown vessel.  Although a packet does not seem to be a worthy prize, it is clear that the Diligence is the privateers’ prey; Maturin wonders if Johnson is behind it and then recognizes that Villiers’ necklace contains the very valuable Blue Peter diamond.  A race begins, with the schooner’s superior sailing abilities giving it an advantage until Aubrey helps improve the packet’s performance.  They sail through the fog and fishing fleet of the banks.  The privateers stay on them, and when the Diligence reaches the Grand Banks there is neither fog nor night for protection.  A British merchantman fails to distract the privateers.  Suddenly the Liberty runs into ice, and, as its consort changes course to help, the Diligence knows it’s safe.

(4) Having passed the slower Nova Scotia during the chase, Diligence reaches England and delivers the news of the victory.  Portsmouth goes mad.  Although glad for a pint of English ale, Aubrey is anxious to be home.  Ashgrove Cottage is like a memory, and he has been gone so long that his children do not recognize him.  Sophie greets him more with affection than passion, and although the house is soon filled with flowers and music, Kimber’s scheme is back to haunt Aubrey.  As Aubrey and Maturin take a swift post-chaise to London, Maturin tells his friend that he needs real legal counsel.  Maturin visits his old friend Sir Joseph, who is very pleased at the intelligence coup but panics when Maturin says he is ready to retire.  Sir Joseph tells him that the British position is more fragile than ever, and Maturin’s skills are desperately needed.  Specifically, there is a heavily fortified island being held by Catalans who believe that their independence is dependent on service to Bonaparte.  For the time being, this crisis is in the hands of an able agent, Pompeu Ponsich, but Maturin’s expertise is essential.  Maturin asks for and is given papers to travel to Paris to present at the Institut de France, an order of release for Villiers, and a lawyer for Aubrey.

The Institut de France from an 1838 engraving by the Rouargue brothers

Villiers accompanies Maturin to Paris with all its splendor.  She is taken in by Maturin’s friend, the wealthy, connected, and chaste La Mothe.  Aubrey, meanwhile, is suffering his father and contemplating a command of the stationary receiving ship Orion.  Yet more trouble:  The embittered Lieutenant Grant of the Leopard is spreading false accounts, and Ms. Smith has written Aubrey that she is pregnant with his child.  Maturin nervously prepares for his address on his naturalist discoveries.  Although a dashed, mumbling presentation, it luckily ends without disaster.  News comes of the sudden death of Ponsich, and Maturin is forced to quickly take his leave of Villiers.

(6) Back at Ashgrove Cottage, Aubrey is trying to conceal his affair.  Maturin arrives and tells of the potential mission to Grimsholm Island, the the almost impregnable fortress in the Baltic held by the Catalans.  As Maturin and Aubrey head to London, Aubrey reveals the matter of Ms. Smith to his friend, who warns that the pregnancy itself may be a deception.  Reaching their old inn, The Grapes, Maturin sees Sir Joseph and learns not only of the strategic importance of Grimsholm but also that the commander of the dominant Catalan group is none other than Maturin’s own godfather, Ramon d’Ullastret i Casademon.  Maturin accepts the mission to take Grimsholm by negotiation on the condition that the Catalans are taken home as free men.  Aubrey goes to the Admiralty to face the false charges of Lieutenant Grant but is instead given command of the sloop Ariel.  At The Grapes, Maturin and Aubrey dine with Jagiello, a handsome Lithuanian officer in the Swedish service who will serve as advisor on the mission.  The three men travel with the King’s Messenger to the Nore.  Aubrey quickly replaces Captain Draper on the Ariel, a well-built, formidable ship with a flush deck.

“British Merchant Navy Barque Off Elsinore, Denmark,” artist unknown

(7) The very serviceable Ariel sails into the Baltic.  Aubrey becomes himself again.  Jagiello is clumsy but popular.  They put into the melancholy town of Gothenburg, Sweden, for supplies, a meal of local delicacies, and their Baltic pilot, Mr. Pellworm.  Sailing the narrow channel between Sweden and Denmark, they pass’ Hamlet’s old castle of Elsinore while dodging the mortar fire of Elsinore’s modern fortress.  The damp air of the Baltic Sea does not sit well with Maturin.  At Carlscrona they visit the legendary Admiral Saumarez and his political advisor.  The plan is to have Maturin placed on Grimsholm aboard a supply boat loaded with rum and tobacco while the Ariel and the transports to take the Catalans wait out of sight.  It is an all-or-none assignment.

(8) The Ariel sets out at night, hoping in the morning to take a recently spotted Danish cat to serve as the supply boat.  Instead they find the Minnie, a Danish ship that is sometimes a trader and sometimes a privateer…and thus decently armed.  Ariel plays as a Danish merchant to bring the Minnie closer, anxious to make the capture soon so they can get Maturin to his destination.  The Minnie intentionally loses way when they spot the Humbug, a British hermaphroditeMinnie sails for the shallow shoals of the Forten to lose its pursuer, but it is the Minnie that runs aground and is forced to strike.  More delays–The Minnie has to be pulled off, and the Ariel‘s pilot has to go to the Humbug when it can’t navigate the shoals.  They change their plan to make up time:  The Ariel will pretend to chase the already captured Minnie towards Grimsholm.  The ships join the transports and approach their destination.  As Maturin goes to the Minnie, everyone is on edge.  The mock pursuit begins, and the guns from the fortress open fire.  The Minnie makes her landing as Ariel stays just far enough away.  Aubrey sees Maturin reach the dock and share an embrace with his godfather.  The mission is a success.

“His Majesty’s Frigate Fisgard, Captain T. Byam Martin, On A Lee Shore Weathering The Rocks Off Ushant” by Richard Brydges Beechey

(9) After returning victorious to the Admiral, Aubrey and the fleet set off in a thickening fog to deliver the Catalans back home.  The navigation is tricky as the ships thread the Langelands Belt.  A woman is found in Jagiello’s bed and put ashore.  The barometer continues to fall while Aubrey’s chronometer, precious to navigation, gets broken.  It comes on to blow as they sail through more narrow channels.  With no stars to read, they use signs from the bottom to establish their position.  Finally, they leave the Baltic and sail hurriedly down the Channel.  They are hit by three black squalls.  There is no improvement in the weather as they aim to round Ushant for the Bay of BiscayHMS Jason is spotted, chasing a French two-decker, Méduse.  Aubrey leaves the transport convoy to assist, making speed in hard rain and rough seas, and doing passing damage to the French ship before leaving her to the Jason.  Suddenly they see breakers:  They have miscalculated their position and are now near the reefs of Ushant.  The French battery opens fire.  The ship temporarily hidden by the rain, Aubrey decides to escape by doing a club-haul, using the anchor to swing the ship quickly about.  They run into the rocks but manage to float to shore…and to capture.

“Tour du Temple circa 1795,” Ecole Francaise

(10) The officers and crew of the Ariel are held prisoner in Brest.  Even as the men fear their fates, Jagiello again receives female attention.  After being interviewed by a French Admiral, Aubrey, Maturin, and Jagiello are taken to Paris by a dark stranger named Duhamel.  En route, Maturin tries to assess the situation, the possibility of torture, and the state of Villiers.  The three are imprisoned at the very old Tower of the Temple, which is in fact being dismantled as they are interred.  Aubrey pale and ill, Maturin plays his position as surgeon with the prison’s governor and then through medical connections to learn that Villier’s pregnancy is going badly.  Weeks go by, time passing its own kind of torture.  Aubrey creates order and routine for the trio and contemplates escape, either via an intriguing old, shut door or through the privy.  Jagiello, meanwhile, uses his charm to get Madame Lehideux, who has been bringing their food, to smuggle in tools.

(11) Maturin is repeatedly taken away and interrogated.  He tells a single truth repeatedly to avoid either giving anything away or putting himself in further danger.  Nevertheless, witnessing a firing squad makes the dire nature of his situation clear.  Duhamel, an agent with a different agenda, offers Maturin a chance to bring peace proposals to Britain, but Maturin keeps his true occupation revealed.  Villiers comes uncomfortably into play as Duhamel mentions the Blue Peter, and Maturin slyly lays out his conditions for accepting Duhamel’s mission.  Aubrey is relieved to find via the Naval Chronicle that his paramour Smith has married.  At Maturin’s next interrogation, Johnson suddenly appears and gives away Maturin’s identity.  Aubrey redoubles their efforts to create an escape through the privy.  Just as they are lifting the last slab between them and freedom, four men–including Duhamel–come through the mysterious door.  They descend secretly to waiting coaches.  Maturin is reunited with Villiers, who has sacrificed her diamond and lost her baby.  Everyone is taken to Calais and a discreetly waiting cartel, HMS Oedipus, commanded by none other than Babbington.  As they cross the Channel, Maturin and Villiers are married at last, Aubrey giving away the bride.

“The Port of Calais” by Édouard Manet
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