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Blue Sky and Black Water

The gray skies met the gray ocean and Stephen Maturin, looking out of the stern windows of the Leopard and watching a shower of rain approach from the west, was not sure where the one began and the other ended.

"Do you remember Flinders, Stephen?" Jack Aubrey asked, breaking in on his ruminations from the other side of the table. "Captain Matthew Flinders? At Mauritius?" When Stephen replied he did not Jack continued: "Well, you were busy at the time with your political maneuvers. He was kept prisoner there by the French after stopping there on his way home in the year four. He was despicably treated by the governor, left in the worst ill-health without compassion. It quite ruined him. He is a most superlative chart maker - learnt from Bligh himself - showed me his work and mentioned that he had circumnavigated New Holland in the process. But he was most glad to finally be able to return to England. Anyway, once I knew I was to take the Leopard to Port Jackson, I paid a call on him in London to talk about the approaches to it and the coastline around it. While I was there he gave me a chart for a capital harbour, the best on the south-western coast of the continent, he said, called King George's Sound. Vancouver found it in '91 but Flinders said he had made a more accurate chart when he was there in '03. I thought we would touch there, wood and water and perhaps look for suitable timber for spars. Lord knows we are short of them, having used so many on the jury-rudders, and with the Leopard likely to meet a blow or two between here and Port Jackson I should like to have some on hand."

"What joy you give me!" Stephen cried at this news. "It shall be like a visit to Malmaison itself!" Before an astonished Jack could reply to such a statement he had continued on: "The black swan! The kangaroo! To see Guichenot's and Leschenault's flora in their native soil! When shall we be there?"

"Tomorrow, perhaps, if the wind stays fair. I have not been able to get a good lunar these last few nights to be sure. The glass has been rising, though - the wind may swing to head us and then we would be forced to turn away once more, back down to the high forties until we can clear Van Deiman's land."

Making his way up to the deck the next morning Stephen found the Leopard at single anchor (the carronade that had worked so well at Desolation was once again employed for the task) on the side of a large enclosed bay surrounded by dark-green hills, some with beaches of the whitest sand at their feet that stretched between rounded piles of granite boulders. Overhead for the first time in many a day he saw blue sky, flecked with white clouds, but not enough to block the sun from warming his bones in a delightful way. He turned his face gratefully towards it.

"Why there you are, Doctor!" called Jack when he noticed Stephen. "Perhaps not the prettiest shore you'll ever see but a welcome one, right where Flinders said it would be."

It had been a long night for Jack, called at two bells in the middle watch when the first ominous sound of surf booming on the ironbound coast had been heard, the waning moon shining through the ever-increasing gaps in the cloud lighting up a scene that would have chilled the bravest heart to it's core in a storm, and the wind dropping steadily as the glass rose added to his concern, and it wasn't until they cleared Eclipse Island at last and saw the mouth of the Sound, the wind heading six points to the SE just at the right time along with the flooding tide that he began to relax and the Leopard entered the shelter of the Sound easily with as much style as the weather-worn ship possessed.

While Babbington was overseeing the lowering of one of the remaining boats, Jack was peering to the north side of the Sound in his telescope. "Would you like to share a pot of coffee with me before we go ashore?"

"By all means," replied Stephen. As much as he desired to step ashore and begin naturalising immediately, his nose caught the familiar smell of bacon and coffee and his stomach answered; he knew a good breakfast would set him up admirably for the rest of the day.

"Capital oysters, Babbington," said Captain Aubrey as the piles of empty shells were taken away. "A feast fit for a king."

"Thank you, sir," the lieutenant replied. They were a welcome change from the biscuit, peas, salt horse and pickled seal they had been dining on for the last few weeks, and now fresh fish was to follow.

"Have you seen anything in the vegetable line that may be of use in the way of supplies, Doctor?" Jack asked.

"I have not seen anything that may act as an antiscorbutic," Stephen replied. "Indeed, it is the most inedible flora I have ever seen: Stiff, spiny and leathery, almost to a piece. We shall have to rely on the cabbages of Desolation for a while longer, I fear."

"Perhaps you shall see a hippogryph, then," Jack said by way of consolation.

“I should rather see a kangaroo, sir. That beast at least would fill our bellies with infinitely less risk,” replied Stephen.

"At least we won't be reduced to eating our shoes, not with fare like this," Jack said as the next dish came in. The meal continued in fine spirit, Jack reflecting that the only thing that would make even more perfect would be a letter from home, but they were at least four thousand miles from the nearest hope of mail.

After the cloth had been removed, and the port decanter passed around the table a few times, they drank to the King, for whom Vancouver had named the Sound after, and another for the Princess Royal, for whom the inner harbour had been named. Jack had no intention of trying to take the Leopard in there, but he could see that it would make a fine, safe anchorage for smaller vessels in time of need. It was indeed a very fine harbour, and it would be even finer if they could find all that they had come for.

It was a tired, scratched and deeply disappointed Jack that returned to the ship the next night.

"What a damnable country, Stephen. I don't know what you see in it. No trunk that is not twisted, or if it is straight enough the wood is not suitable for spars. We shall not stay much longer; once we have completed our firewood and watering we shall depart; although the glass is steady I expect it will start dropping again soon and that should give us a good wind to make our offing. Is that a plant or an animal?" he asked, looking at the squat, green, lidded growths that Stephen was settling into a pot of damp soil.

"It is an ingenious deception, my dear," Stephen replied, and taking his pocket-lancet he sacrificed a pitcher to show Jack the half-digested shells of the insects inside, mainly ants, floating in the sweet liquid. "Although carnivorous plants are by no means uncommon I believe this form is quite unique." He gazed upon the pitcher-plants nestled in their damp pot with deep satisfaction, while privately Jack wished he had found as much satisfaction here as Stephen had.

"If I may, Jack, if there is time, I would like to walk the hills above the watering place," Stephen requested of the Captain.

"By all means. Give Byron my compliments and tell him not to leave without you in the morning. I am grateful that Vancouver's spring at least does not run as dark as many others I have seen here."

"Look out for lions and tigers, wont you, sir?" said Joe Plaice as they neared the shore.

Stephen turned his pale stare upon him: He had never seen a more unlikely place for tigers. Bonden had his usual look of disapprobation on for the Doctor's lone wanderings in a strange land. "Take a brace of pistols with you, sir," he suggested.

"Bonden, can you see the Doctor?" Byron asked some time later as he peered up the slope between the trees. The watering was now finished and the lieutenant wished to get under way before the rising wind got much stronger or they'd have a hard pull back to the ship.

"No, sir," the cox'un replied as he peered upslope too. "Perhaps we'll get a better view up there, sir," he suggested, pointing to the small rise to the left. Byron called a marine to come with him and the three of them pushed their way up above the sheltered strand. There they looked up and saw the Doctor, not all that far away after all, atop a rock.

"Ahoy there, Doctor! Time to be going!" Byron called in his sea-going voice. They watched him turn at their call and wave an annoyed, imperative hand at them. The words " - Bonden! It's a -" arrived from afar as his slender form twisted around and suddenly plunged from the rock, the crack of a pistol shot following, the gusting wind foreshortening the sound.

They raced upwards, as fast as the ankle-grabbing shrubs would allow and found the Doctor kneeling in the lee of a boulder, a wide, pleased grin on his face, admiring the long black snake he had neatly dispatched with the pistol. One hand expertly gripped it behind the jaws, exposing a bead of venom hanging from its fangs.

"Gentlemen, I give you your Tiger!" he cried as he displayed its yellow-striped length to them in triumph.

The Leopard stood out for the offing, lifting and falling on the rolling swell. Stephen leaned on the taffrail of the poop-deck and watched the Sound recede, a veil of tranquility descending once more, deceiving the casual eye.

Jack had already turned his back on it, watching the activity on deck and the open sea before them. "A barren, useless land, upon my word. And now we have lost a week, not just a few days, in the time it will take us to make out latitude again," he had said to Stephen earlier, disappointed not to have found his spars.

The misty breath of a whale sounding rose above the water, then another. The wind gusted strongly, the Leopard heeled over in response and the last of the land was hidden by the curtain of rain racing towards them, the boundary between sea and sky disappearing once more.

© 2006 Jacquie Milner