Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | September 25, 2012

Aubrey-Maturin in Brief 9: Treason’s Harbor


The ninth book of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series takes its title from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 2:  “Smooth runnes the Water, where the Brooke is deepe/And in his simple shew he harbours Treason.”  This is possibly the origin of the saying ‘still waters run deep’–Someone who is calm probably has a lot more going on under the surface.  In the context of the book, this could be either Stephen Maturin or Jack Aubrey, who have intertwining troubles on and off the Mediterranean isle of Malta.  (SPOILER alert.)  The Surprise begins the novel unrepaired and abandoned in the port of Valletta and ends the novel threatened with being sold out of the Navy or even broken up.  In between are not one but two failed missions, the most central of which sees Aubrey, his friend, and his crew marching across parched desert sands in Egypt to the dangerous waters of the Red Sea in pursuit of a treasure-laden galley.  Both missions are diplomatic in origin, which is, of course, Maturin’s milieu, but underlying both the diplomacy and the failure of each assignment is the fact that the French have compromised British intelligence in Malta.  Maturin must thus maneuver with his wits and keep his cool, which is not always easy for the pensive doctor.

Before proceeding, I want to take a little time to describe the methodology behind these summaries.  It must seem odd to some to watch me reading a novel but all the while jotting notes in the margins.  These notes try to capture major names, plot points, locations, and flavor.  When I’m done with the book, I use these to summarize one chapter per blog paragraph.  I have found that there are other study guides out there to O’Brian’s works, but my goal is not Cliff Notes:  I’m not making a cheat sheet or a quick means to know the book without reading it.  My objective is to give existing readers a hyperlinked review, seeing as his novels are so packed with dialogue and detail that it can be easy to lose the larger plot.  I also hope to tease the uninitiated into the O’Brian universe.

I must also give credit where it is due.  One of the particular joys and challenges of the books is geography.  Not only are there a lot of places, but also it can be very hard to figure out exactly where O’Brian is talking about or even if the locations or real, fictitious, or somewhere in between.  Since I like to get it right and add links to the places in Aubrey and Maturin’s travels, I am indebted to Dean King’s atlas and guide, Harbors and High Seas, which offers maps and answers to (some) geographical mysteries.  Since illustrations can take the dryness out of any piece of writing, I take time to add pictures representative of the ships, places and events O’Brian and I are writing about.  As this is historical fiction, a modern photograph, in my opinion, just wouldn’t fit.  So I try to use nothing but paintings and period paintings when I can, captioning the title and artist.  I must also give thanks to all of the online galleries I have Googled and borrowed from.

Enough shore work.  Let’s get sailing.

“Grand Harbour and Fort Sant’ Angelo, Valletta, Malta” by Johann Schranz

(1) The city of Valletta on the island of Malta is a pretty sight to all but those unfortunate officers of the Royal Navy who are stranded in port without ships to command.  This melancholy group includes Capt. Jack Aubrey, who has not one but two vessels in dock–the worn-out 74-gun Worcester, nearly sunk in a storm serving with the blockade of Toulon, and Aubrey’s dear frigate Surprise, damaged in battle with two Turkish ships.  Yet, on this day, Aubrey is cheerful and boisterous, not only because his longtime shipmate Thomas Pullings has just received his captain’s commission, but also because he can show off the chelengk on his hat, a prize from his recent successful mission in the Ionian Islands.  In a far more sanguine mood in Dr. Stephen Maturin, who sees chaotic Malta–which was not long ago under French control–as the perfect place for British information to be leaked to Napoleon’s intelligence networks.  Indeed, Maturin’s and Aubrey’s very moves are being tracked by the French agent Lesueur.  Furthermore, Lesueur has forced a woman into his service named Laura Fielding, a Neopolitan whose husband, a Naval lieutenant, was captured and imprisoned at Bitche.  As an instructor of Italian to the local British officers, she is well-placed to gather intelligence, and Lesueur has planned specifically to have Fielding use Aubrey as a means to approach Maturin.  Further complicating matters are two of Aubrey’s old foes:  Rear Admiral Harte, who has just ended a term as temporary Commander in Chief, and Andrew Wray, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, who has recently arrived in Malta to deal with corruption.  That night, Aubrey takes his violin to Fielding’s little garden house.  He discovers that her big Illyrian mastiff, Ponto, has fallen in a water cistern.  He tries to rescue the dog but falls into the cistern himself.

(2) It is a sad state in Malta.  Aubrey’s mishap has caused rumors to circulate of an affair between him and Fielding.  The Surprise sits deserted and unrepaired, while what remains of her crew has grown threadbare and dissolute.  Aubrey gives his men something to do by having them row to the nearby island of Gozo.  There Aubrey drinks with fellow officers and, witnessing for himself the lax nature of intelligence in Malta, learns of a “confidential” mission to the Red Sea to replace the troublesome ruler of the island of Mubara.  He then goes to visit Admiral Hartley, who helped a young Aubrey pass his Lieutenant exams and who was rescued from the sea by Aubrey.  Aubrey finds to his dismay a sailor well past his prime living in a once splendid house fallen into utter disrepair.  Maturin, meanwhile, is listening to vespers at the abbey church of St. Simon’s and is surprised to find Wray is there to enjoy the music as well.  When Maturin departs to see Fielding, Wray slips to a rendezvous with the agent Lesueur, who has cornered Wray for his gambling debts.

(3) Good things come to both Aubrey and Maturin.  Aubrey learns that the French vessel he had captured in the Ionian has been officially declared a prize, giving him the funding to get repairs on the Surprise underway.  Maturin receives a much anticipated diving bell designed by “Comet” Halley.  After a muddy dive in the harbour, he meets with his friend and fellow intelligence agent Professor Graham, who tells Maturin of the presence of Lesueur.  Maturin hurriedly and uncomfortably rushes to Fielding’s to play music with her and Aubrey, but it is an awkward sonata and an unfortunate evening.  Aubrey feels rejected when Maturin is invited to stay after the gathering.  In Fielding’s bedroom, Maturin discovers that Fielding is trying to seduce him by the use of Spanish fly.  They share wine and a kiss before Fielding breaks into tears.  She reveals to Maturin her delicate position and shows him letters from her husband, which Maturin suspects are fakes.  Maturin does not reveal his true position but agrees to play Fielding’s lover to satisfy those manipulating her.

“HMS Caledonia Lying in Plymouth Sound” by Henry Andrews Luscombe

(4) Aubrey wakes Maturin in the middle of the day and rushes him to the formal welcoming of the new, far more able and welcome Commander in Chief, Sir Francis Ives.  The Surprise is finally getting repaired, thirteen days away from being ready to put to sea.  Her crew has been much reduced by mishap and reassignment, but those left are the best men and all well-known to Aubrey, not the least of whom is Mowett, now taking Pullings’ old position as First Lieutenant.  Aubrey is summoned aboard Ives’ flagship, HMS Caledonia, and is given the secret mission to Mubara, largely on the basis of the success in the Ionian and the symbolic chelengk he now wears.  He is to meet the island’s new ruler, Turkish troops, and an eighteen-gun sloop provided by the East India Company at Suez.  The promise of treasure dangles as they are also to intercept a galley carrying the treasure that escaped Mauritius just prior to the British takeover that Aubrey played a large role in making possible.  All of this must be done with the utmost speed, as the Muslims of of Mubara will do nothing until Ramadan is over.  Aubrey, Maturin (and his diving bell), the Surprises, Maturin’s friend and fellow naturalist Reverend Martin, and an Armenian dragoman assigned to the mission named Hairabedian hurriedly get underway on the transport ship Dromedary.  As the ship makes good speed across the Mediterranean, the Surprises leave their sedentary squalor behind.

“Murad Bey” by Dutertre

(5) Just as Mr. Martin is preparing to give a sermon, the Dromedary reaches Tina, little more than a shallow beach on the far eastern edge of the Nile Delta near the ruins of ancient Pelusium.  Aubrey and Maturin contemplate the odds of success, knowing that with the mission so well known back in Malta there may be no element of surprise.  The Turks do not answer the ship’s salute:  The Dromedary has arrived too soon, and the Muslims are still fasting.  They meet the local Egyptian effendi, who tells them of the desert journey to come, and the Turkish obadashi, representing the janissary troops.  With Aubrey in full finery, the men set off by camel and horse over flat, hard sand to the nearby town of Katia for Murad Bey, the new ruler to be placed at Mubara.  They return on the caravan route by starlight with the not-so-distant sounds of hyenas and jackals.  After a feast at Tina, the Bey orders the obadashi to make his troops ready to travel, but the obadashi scares the Surprises with tales of jinns and ghouls.

“Caravan Crossing The Desert” by Charles Theodore Frère

(6) The Surprises and the Turks march south across the desert, traveling by night and resting by day.  Camels run over Aubrey’s tent, ruining his hat and making him lose the precious chelengk.  Maturin moves his diving bell by his own private caravan.  Hairabedean is bit by a scorpion.  Reaching Suez, they find the Indiaman Niobe waiting, but once more the Turks are not ready.  Maturin speaks to the commanding officer, Midhat Bimbashi, in French, and the lure of treasure gets the Turks motivated.  The problem is now that the wind is not blowing from the right direction for them to head down the perilous, narrow, reef-bound Gulf.  The “Egyptian wind” comes, and though they are able to get underway, it is a hot, gusty breeze full of blowing sand that makes for blind, dangerous sailing.  The wind eases enough to not be dangerous, and the Niobe sails fast and well.  The wind drops when they reach the Red Sea until it dies altogether, leaving everyone to suffer the still heat.  Hairabadean decides to take a swim but within minutes he is devoured by sharks.  Aubrey’s chelengk is discovered in his effects.  Their khat running out, the Turks nearly turn on Aubrey, but the ship finally edges to Mubara.  Niobe anchors and waits.  Close to sunrise, they hear the sound of the galley-rowers’ song.  At dawn they spot the galley, close to the coral reef that runs to the entrance of Mubara Bay.  The galley pulls hard away.  Aubrey opts to close now rather than wait and puts a shot across the galley’s bow as she clears the reef.  Then Aubrey sees it’s all a trap:  The galley is pulling so hard because they are using a drag sail, and if Aubrey gets any closer he will be within range of Mubara’s gun batteries.  With one perfect shot, Niobe sinks the galley; the treasure is now visible only ten fathoms down.  Fortunately, Maturin has his diving bell, and he and Martin go down.  Yet the toil is for naught:  It was all an elaborate ruse, the chests containing nothing but lead and a mocking note in French.

“A Bedouin Beside His Camel” by Achille-Constant-Théodore-Emile Prisse d’Avennes

(7) Niobe beats slowly back up the Red Sea and the Suez Channel.  It is scorchingly dry, and they are low on water.  At Kosseir they put off the Turks.  Over sherbet in Suez, Maturin contemplates how the mission was compromised while Aubrey dreads writing the official report of his failure.  Soon the caravan heads north in neat order.  They stop at Bir Hafsa for water, where they are beset by a large force of Bedouins.  No one is hurt, but most of the caravan’s camels are scared off.  They struggle back to Tina; the Turks are gone but, fortunately, not the Dromedary.

(8) Back in Valletta, Aubrey reports to Sir Francis.  Even worse than the Commander in Chief’s disappointment is the news that the Surprise, now considered an “anachronism,” is to be either laid up or sold out of the service.  Maturin returns to Fielding, who shows him another letter from her husband, and Maturin is convinced that he is dead.  Afraid that Fielding’s usefulness to the French will soon end, he prepares to feed Lesueur misinformation through her.  Among letters for Maturin is one from Sir Joseph, chief of naval intelligence, who hints that Wray is capable but not in full confidence.  On the Caledonia with Sir Francis and his staff, Aubrey and Maturin learn that Hairabedian was the leak that ruined the Mubara assignment, but the larger problem remains that French intelligence knows every British movement before it occurs.  Maturin tries to get to know Wray and also begins to beat him soundly at cards.  He gives Fielding a coded but incomplete letter, which is quickly in the hands of Wray and Lesueur.  Repairs on the Surprise are finally repaired, but the bittersweet task of making her trim is left to her old crew.  Wray continues to lose to Maturin until he confesses that he can’t actually pay.  The Surprise receives orders to escort the Adriatic convoy, but before leaving Maturin gives Fielding a notebook full of carefully composed poisoned intelligence.

“Trieste” by August Anton Tischbein

(9) The Surprise escorts a well-behaved convoy, first delivering two ships to Santa Maura.  Rounding Cape Stavros, Aubrey recounts to Major Pollock how he successfully forced the French to surrender Marga at the end of the Ionian mission.  They stop at Kutali and are warmly received by Sciahan Bey and their old allies.  When the convoy is becalmed off Corfu, Aubrey fights off a number of French shore boats.  They find English company off Trieste, including Babbington’s Dryad and the Nymphe under an old friend of Aubrey’s, Captain Cotton.  Aboard the Nymphe, Maturin meets with his fellow surgeons.  A patient with a wound from a pistol ball wound turns out to be none other than the lost Lieutenant Fielding, who gives Maturin a detailed account of his arduous escape from French captivity.  Unfortunately, he has already heard the rumors of Aubrey’s affair with his wife, and rather than accept Aubrey’s offer of speedy transport to Malta he puts Aubrey to a challenge once they are both back in Valletta.

“Exploding Ship” by Ivan Aivazovsky

(10) With the Surprise slowed down by her ponderous escort the Dryad, Maturin watches dolphins in the gentle breezes in the Strait of Otranto and plans how to rescue Mrs. Fielding before the French agents can get to her.  They spot Dundas’ Edinburgh clearing Cape St. Mary, who reports that they just missed capturing a French privateer.  The Surprise finds the privateer at night, and, after the Dryad cuts her off from the safety of land, the Surprise chases her quickly south.  After one ball, the French strike their colors.  Although the capture of the prize is good news, they are now worried that the news of Lt. Fielding’s survival will beat them to Malta.  Indeed, when they get to Valletta, they find that the Dryad arrived two days before, while both the Commander in Chief and Wray are gone.  As a thunderstorm breaks, Maturin lets herself into Mrs. Fielding’s, but she’s not there.  He waits and hears a lock being picked:  It is Lesueur and his associate Boulay.  Aubrey, meanwhile, receives written orders for another mission:  Sail to Zambra, where the Dey of Mascara has been making threats and demands, and either convince the Dey to be more cooperative or embark the British Consul and threaten war.  They are also, unfortunately, to be sailing in the company of the Pollux, a worn out sixty four carrying Admiral Harte.  Just as the French depart, Fielding arrives, and Maturin hurries her to the Surprise.  For six easy days they sail, a dreamy voyage although likely the Surprise‘s last.  They raise Cape Roba, and, as the Pollux stands off, Surprise enters Zambra Bay.  Suddenly, a double-decked man-of-war flying Turkish colors, followed closely by two frigates, rounds the opposite cape.  The big ship immediately starts pummeling the Pollux.  The Surprise runs to help, heeled over, all men ready.  The Pollux blows up, but the man-of-war appears to be badly mangled and out of the fight.  The frigates pursue the Surprise, and, although they have the weather gage, one is slow and the other seems inexperienced.  Aubrey draws the enemy towards a formation called the Brothers and threads a narrow channel as one of French hits the rocks.  The mission abandoned, Surprise sails as fast she can for Gibraltar.

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