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Jack Aubrey in the country

We've posted part of Patrick O’Brian’s brilliant sketch of outdoor winter sports from Post Captain. A romantic, realistic and amusing depiction, it begins slowly before something rather unfortunate happens to Captain Aubrey -

Polcary Down and the cold sky over it; a searching air from the north breathing over the water-meadows, up across the plough, up and up to this great sweep of open turf, the down, with the covert called Rumbold’s Gorse sprawling on the lower edge of it. A core of red-coated figures dotted round the Gorse, and far away below them on the middle slope a ploughman standing at the end of his furrow, motionless behind his team of Sussex oxen, gazing up as Mr Savile’s hounds worked their way through the furze and the brown remnants of the bracken.

Slow work; uncertain, patchy scent; and the foxhunters had plenty of time to drink from their flasks, blow on their hands, and look out over the landscape below them – the river winding through its patchwork of fields, the towers or steeples of Hither, Middle, Nether and Savile Champflower, the six or seven big houses scattered along the valley, the whale-backed downs one behind the other, and far away the lead-coloured sea.

It was a small field, and almost everyone there knew everyone else: half a dozen farmers, some private gentlemen from the Champflowers and the outlying parishes, two militia officers from the dwindling camp at Rainsford. Mr Burton, who had come out in spite of his streaming cold in the hope of catching a glimpse of Mrs St John, and Dr Vining, with his hat pinned to his wig and both tied under his chin with a handkerchief. He had been led astray early in his rounds – he could not resist the sound of the horn – and his conscience had been troubling him ever since the scent had faded and died. From time to time he looked over the miles of frigid air between the covert and Mapes Court, where Mrs Williams was waiting for him. ‘There is nothing wrong with her’, he observed. ‘My physic will do no good; but in Christian decency I should call. And indeed I shall, unless they find again before I can tell a hundred.’ He put his finger upon his pulse and began to count. At ninety he paused, looking about for some reprieve, and on the far side of the covert he saw a figure he did not know. ‘That is the medical man they have been telling me about, no doubt,’ he said. ‘It would be a civil thing to go over and say a word to him. A rum-looking cove. Dear me, a very rum-looking cove.’

The rum-looking cove was sprawling upon a mule, an unusual sight in an English hunting-field; and quite apart from the mule there was a strange air about him – his slate-coloured small-clothes, his pale face, his pale eyes and even paler close-cropped skull (his hat and wig were tied to his saddle), and the way he bit into a hunk of bread rubbed with garlic. He was calling out in a loud tone to his companion, in whom Dr Vining recognized the new tenant of Melbury Lodge. ‘I tell you what it is, Jack,’ he was saying, ‘I tell you what it is. . .’

‘You sir – you on the mule,’ cried old Mr Savile’s furious voice. ‘Will you let the God-damned dogs get on with their work? Hey? Hey? Is this a God-damned coffee-house? I appeal to you, is this an infernal debating society?’

Captain Aubrey pursed his lips demurely and pushed his horse over the twenty yards that separated them. ‘Tell me later, Stephen,’ he said in a low voice, leading his friend round the covert out of the master’s sight. ‘Tell me later, when they have found their fox.’

The demure look did not sit naturally upon Jack Aubrey’s face, which in this weather was as red as his coat, and as soon as they were round the corner, under the lee of a wind-blown thorn, his usual expectant cheerfulness returned, and he looked eagerly up into the furze, where an occasional heave and rustle showed the pack in motion.

'Looking for a fox, are they?’ said Stephen Maturin, as though hippogriffs were the more usual quarry in England, and he relapsed into a brown study, munching slowly upon his bread.

The wind breathed up the long hillside; remote clouds passed evenly across the sky. Now and then Jack’s big hunter brought his ears to bear; ths was a recent purchase, a strongly-built bay, quite up to Jack’s sixteen stone. But it did not much care for hunting, and then like so many geldings it spent much of its time mourning for its lost stones: a discontented horse. If the moods that succeeded one another in its head had taken the form of words they would have run, ‘Too heavy – sits too far forward when we go over a fence – have carried him far enough for one day – shall have him off presently, see if I don’t. I smell a mare! A mare! Oh!’ Its flaring nostrils quivered, and it stamped.

Looking round Jack saw that there were newcomers in the field. A young woman and a groom came hurrying up the side of the plough, the groom mounted on a cob and the young woman on a pretty little high-bred chestnut mare. When they reached the post and rail dividing the field from the down the groom cantered on to open a gate, but the girl set her horse at the rail and skipped neatly over it, just as a whimpering and then a bellowing roar inside the covert gave promise of great things.

The noise died away: a young hound came out and stared into the open. Stephen Maturin moved from behind the close-woven thorn to follow the flight of a falcon overhead, and at the sight of the mule the chestnut mare began to caper, flashing her white stockings and tossing her head.

‘Get over, you –‘ said the girl, in her pure clear young voice. Jack had never heard a girl say – before, and he turned to look at her with a particular interest. She was busy coping with the mare’s excitement, but after a moment she caught his eye and frowned. He looked away, smiling, for she was the prettiest thing – indeed, beautiful, with her heightened colour and her fine straight back, sitting her horse with the unconscious grace of a midshipman at the tiller in a lively sea. She had black hair and blue eyes; a certain ram-you-damn-you air that was slightly comic and more than a little touching in so slim a creature. She was wearing a shabby blue habit with white cuffs and lapels, like a naval lieutenant’s coat, and on top of it all a dashing tricorne with a tight curl of ostrich-feather. In some ingenious way, probably by the use of combs, she had drawn up her hair under this hat so as to leave one ear exposed; and this perfect ear, as Jack observed when the mare came crabwise towards him, was as pink as. . .

‘There is that fox of theirs,’ remarked Stephen, in a conversational tone. ‘There is that fox we hear so much about. Though, indeed, it is a vixen, sure.’

Slipping quickly along a fold in the ground the leaf-coloured fox went slanting down across them towards the plough. The horses’ ears and the mule’s followed it, cocked like so many semaphores. When the fox was well clear Jack rose in his stirrups, held up his hat and holla’d it away in a high-seas roar that brought the huntsman tearing round, his horn going twang-twang-twang, and hounds racing from the furze at all points. They hit the scent in the sheltered hollow and they were away with a splendid cry. They poured through the fence; they were half-way across the unploughed stubble, a close-packed body – such music – and the huntsman was right up there with them. The field came thundering round the covert: someone had the gate open and in a moment there was an eager crowd jostling to get through, for it was devilish unpleasant downhill leap just here. Jack held hard, not choosing to thrust his first time out in a strange country, but his heart was beating to quarters, double-time, and he had already worked out the line he would follow once the press had thinned.

Jack was the keenest of fox-hunters: he loved everything about the chase, from the first sound of the horn to the rancid smell of the torn fox, but in spite of a few unwelcome spells without a ship, he had spent two-thirds of his lift at sea – his skill was not all he thought it was.

The gate was still jammed – there would be no chance of getting through it before the pack was in the next field. Jack wheeled his horse, called out, ‘Come on, Stephen,’ and put it at the rail. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the chestnut flash between his friend and the crowd in the gate. As his horse rose Jack screwed round to see how the girl would get over, and the gelding instantly felt this change of balance. It took the rail flying high and fast, landed with its head low, and with a cunning twist of its shoulder and an upward thrust from behind it unseated its rider.

He did not fall at once. It was a slow, ignominious glide down that slipper near shoulder, with a fistful of man in his right hand; but the horse was the master of the situation now, and in twenty yards the saddle was empty.

The horse’s satisfaction did not last, however. Jack’s boot was wedged in his near stirrup; it would not come free, and here was his heavy person jerking and thumping along at the gelding’s side, roaring and swearing horribly. The horse began to grow alarmed – to lose its head – to snort – to stare wildly – and to run faster and faster across those dark, flint-strewn, unforgiving furrows.

The ploughman left his oxen and came lumbering up the hill, waving his goad; a tall young man in a green coat, a foot-follower, called out ‘Whoa there, whoa there,’ and ran towards the horse with his arms spread wide; the mule, the last of the vanishing field, turned and raced back to cut the gelding off, swarming along in its inhuman way, very close to the ground. It outran the men, crossed the gelding’s path, stood firm and took the shock: like a hero Stephen flung himself off, seized the reins and clung there until Green Coat and the ploughman came pounding up.

The oxen, left staring half-way along their furrow, were so moved by all this excitement that they came very nearly to the point of cutting a caper on their own. But before they had made up their minds it was over. The ploughman was leading the shamefaced horse to the side of the field, while the other two propped raw bones and bloody head between them, listening gravely to his explanations. The mule walked behind.

Born in Buckinghamshire in 1914 to a physician of German descent and an English mother of Irish descent, the author changed his name to Patrick O’Brian. In what seems one fell swoop he created a new self, made a new marriage, and produced the 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin Royal Navy Napoleonic war series, as well as a history of the Navy for children, and biographies of Joseph Banks and Picasso. He was a stunning writer.

Country sports links are listed in the January Calendar .