Work Header

Enthusiasts and Researchers of Nature

Work Text:

 “Go away, George!”

George Aubrey leaned his blond head against the door. “Brigid, please come out. There’s to be flaming pudding.”

There was a loud thump that suggested a shoe had hit the door just opposite his ear. He flinched and quietly withdrew back downstairs.

“She won’t come out,” he reported to his mother. Sophie Aubrey nodded, but did not waver from her current task.

“Killick, if we put every single piece of silver on the table at once, there will be no room left for the guests’ plates.”

“Which it’s due to the Admiral—” he began, but Sophie had been raised by an even more disagreeable shrew with an even more strident voice, and she brushed off his protest with a peremptory wave.

“If someone gave me such a nasty present I’d be sulking in my room too,” said Fanny with a toss of her head.

“You would not,” said her sister Charlotte, turning her head to better admire one of her new earrings in the mirror over the mantel. “You would be setting up a screech like a pig, and throwing things.”

“She is throwing things,” admitted George.

“What nasty present?” asked their father, coming late into the conversation. He bent and kissed Sophie, who absently patted his cheek as she continued directing the servants.

“Brigid got a parcel with the mail and she was so proud to have a package all her own, but it was nothing but a nasty old book, all mouldy, and now she’s locked herself in her room,” said Fanny.

“Which it come on the packet,” said Killick, “and there was a letter for the Doctor too.” He jerked his chin at the table by the door.

Jack glanced at the letter. “From Christine Wood,” he said. “Stephen will be delighted. Ain’t he here yet?”

“Not yet,” said Sophie.  “Willikins, do stop fussing . And tell Jackson he is on no account to bring ivy into the house. The maids think it brings bad luck,” she explained, turning back to Jack.

“It don’t do to meddle with the people’s ideas of luck,” he agreed. “Do you think we should leave Brigid to Stephen, or should I say something to her?”

“Leave her to Stephen,” said Sophie. “Or better yet, to Padeen, if he comes with him.”

George cast a doubtful look back up the stairs. “It’s not right for her to be shut up by herself at Christmas.”

“If she’s in a passion about something, it will pass off sooner without people plaguing her,” said Sophie. “Leave her in peace.”

“Come on, George,” said Jack. “Walk with me down to the observatory and we’ll see who’s in the harbor.”

The two gentlemen of the family having thus neatly removed themselves from all the difficulties of the day, Sophie took a firm grip on her temper and carried on.

“Charlotte, stop admiring yourself and help me with these flowers,” she said. “Fanny, you shall fold the napkins. Mrs. Andrews said you had quite a knack with them when she was last here.”

“Eliza Thwaite said that paper flowers were quite exploded,” said Charlotte.

“Eliza Thwaite may arrange her Christmas table as she likes,” Sophie responded. “These are perfectly lovely flowers and we shall use them as we always do. We have plenty of hyacinths and narcissus from the hothouse, but not for the table. I will not have them ruining the taste of everything.”

They were still engaged in this genteel occupation when George came pounding up the gravel drive announcing the approach of not one, but two coaches. The ladies finished the table arrangements at top speed and had just whisked away the surplus bits of greenery when the door opened and the tide of guests began to come in.

The Reverend Nathaniel Martin was there, somewhat stouter than in his seafaring days, with a silver-headed cane to assist his wavering gait. His wife stayed close by him, greeting Sophie cheerfully and chatting amiably with Fanny and Charlotte about the news of the neighborhood.

“Nathaniel Martin, joy, what a pleasure to see you looking so well!” Stephen Maturin, emerging from the second coach, cordially shook his former colleague’s hand and bowed gracefully to Mrs. Martin. Behind him, William Mowett, late of His Majesty's Navy and more recently the author of a second volume of verse, was settling accounts with the driver.

“And a pleasure to see you too,” Martin returned. “Your paper to the Society last spring on the structure of the furcula in the Diomedea was masterful, masterful!”

Jack arrived at this stage, having been delayed by a necessary adjustment to his telescope, and it was some time before the business of greeting and acknowledging his various guests could be decently got through. At last, however, he managed to take Stephen aside on the pretext of asking his advice on the preparation of the carving-tools (for Jack was used to cede his role as carver to Stephen whenever possible).

“Brother, I must drop two words in your ear while I have you to myself,” said Jack sotto voce. “The first, and most important, is that here is a letter that arrived for you this morning.”

Stephen took the letter, weighed it in his hand, and said nothing, but Jack thought he looked quite satisfied as he pocketed it.

“And secondly,” he continued, “Brigid seems to be in some sort of a taking about a present she received in the same mail.”

“From whom?” Stephen asked, frowning. “For I brought my gift and Padeen’s with me, you understand, and I am sure Mrs. Oakes—Mrs. Andrews I should say—will do the same, and who else would know her to send her anything? Any of our shipmates might have bought her some trifle, but they would have sent it through you.”

“The Reverend and Mrs. Andrews are not here yet, but I feel sure you are right,” said Jack.

“What was the present?”

“I’ve no idea,” said Jack. “I never laid eyes on it, but Charlotte—or was it Fanny?—said something about a mouldy old book. Mind you, neither of the girls thinks much of a book, unless it is a novel.”

“Where is Brigid?”

“Locked in her room, according to George,” said Jack. “He mentioned something about her throwing things. I thought it best to leave her to you.”

Stephen sighed. “Little do I know of how to manage women, be they never so dear to me,” he said.

Jack maintained a strictly wooden demeanor as he politely murmured a denial of this evident truth.

“I had best go see what is to be done, however,” said Stephen. “Do not, I beg, let her ill-mannered behavior place the least constraint on your festivities.”

“Doubtless it will blow over before the rest of the guests arrive, or at any rate before we are called to dinner,” said Jack. “Speaking of which, may I offer you a whet?”

“Let me attend to my offspring first,” said Stephen apprehensively, “and no doubt I shall be with you again in a moment.”

Up the stairs he went, and tapped on his daughter’s door.

“George, I have told you a thousand times to go AWAY,” came the reply, and Stephen’s heart constricted at how much the strong, passionate voice reminded him of Diana’s in a similar mood.

“It is not George but your own father,” he said in Irish, “and a grief and woe it is to hear you speak so to your host’s son, think shame to yourself.”

There were various rustles and thumps and the door was hastily unlocked. Brigid flung it open and flung herself into his arms, her words so rapid he could hardly distinguish them.

“Oh my father, and it was you yourself I was longing for all the long weary morning, for it is the wonder of the world I have to show you and myself almost distracted for want of wit to understand it, see, look will you, here at the first it is the Latin sure—‘insectorum’ is Latin—but none of the other words can I make out, no, not the smallest, and such pictures were never seen since Adam himself, look and see for yourself, oh, father, please will you tell me what it says!”

Stephen looked with interest. The book was certainly old, and if not mouldy, it indeed partook of a certain mustiness, and the pages were somewhat foxed here and there. It was a substantial volume, bound in slate-blue leather and not much worn in spite of its age. He turned to the title page.

Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium. From the year of our Lord 1705,” he commented. “Your book is more than a century old, my dear, and it was written by a woman, so it was. Maria Sibylla Merian,” he frowned. “I do not recall having heard of her. And it is written in Dutch, though such a work should have been in Latin, for all love.”

“Can you read it?”

“I cannot,” he said, “but surely in this house full of sailors and travelers there will be someone who can. May I see these famous pictures, now?”

She reached over his shoulder and turned to a page marked with a scrap of ribbon. “Look, father. Is it not a treasure?”

“It is indeed,” he said. Before him was a vividly colored illustration of a plant he recognized. He turned back a page, and sure enough, the description included ‘Xylon arboreum’ among the Dutch. The plant was carefully depicted, with living and withered leaves, bud, bloom, and dehiscent ovary. On its twisted branches were the larvae, pupae and eggs of a perfectly recognizable moth, the imago displayed in flight beside the plant. He turned to the next marked page (the place held with a bit of embroidery silk), and the next (with a comb). Each showed an insect in all its forms, inhabiting a plant (presumably the one on which it fed) with all stages of its growth clearly shown. The last (marked with a scrap of gold paper) depicted a glorious Pondeteria, accompanied by a frog with its spawn and tadpoles, with and without legs, and a handsome water scorpion devouring one luckless froglet.

“Is it true, Father?”

“As far as I can tell, it is quite true,” he reassured her. “I have seen some of these very flowers and insects, though Surinam has not come in my way. Who gave you this treasure?”

“I don’t know. The boy brought it with the post and it had my name on the parcel, see.” She displayed the outer wrapping of paper, along with the familiar layers of canvas and oiled silk that he had so often employed for his own correspondence. He reached into his pocket for the letter, forgotten till now, and compared the direction to that on Brigid’s parcel. The hand was the same.

“I think it must have come from Mrs. Wood,” he said. “Mo chridh, will you forgive your father if he reads a word or two to see if she says something of your treasure in this letter here?”

“Of course.”

Stephen opened the letter.

“My dearest Stephen,

It is quite possible that I will be with you sooner than this letter will, but I shall send it just the same. I have taken the liberty of sending to your daughter a curious book that came my way; I found it intriguing and I hope she will as well. I was not aware that so much work had been done so early on the insects of South America. No doubt its having been written in the vernacular, as well as its having been written by a woman, caused it to be overlooked by the Royal Society and their counterparts in other nations.

I have appreciated very much the letters and specimens you have sent since we last saw each other. I hope that in accepting Admiral Aubrey’s kind invitation I shall have the opportunity to discuss them with you, as well as other matters better addressed in person.

In haste, as the packet leaves immediately,

Christine Wood”

As he reached the end of the brief note, there was a murmur of noise from downstairs and then a tentative tapping at the door, followed by a muffled, “Dr. Maturin? The Andrews and Mrs. Wood are come, and my mother says dinner will be served up soon.”

Stephen looked at Brigid. “Shall we join the rest of them? For you know, it is likely we shall find someone among them who can read the Dutch.”

“Oh yes, please,” she said, and caught up her book. Stephen opened the door to reveal George. His concerned look turned to a hesitant smile as he saw Brigid.

“Are you coming down?” he said hopefully. “Only you might want to put your shoe back on, you know, and perhaps tidy your hair as well.”

In the bustle and confusion of greetings and the dinner that followed, Stephen scarcely had an opportunity to speak to Christine, who was seated somewhat apart from him due to the exigencies of keeping the two ministers close enough to speak to each other, keeping William Mowett in a position where he could bridge the gap between seafaring men and literary men, and keeping the young Aubreys, who were old enough to dine with their elders, from teasing Brigid, who was not, but had been permitted to sit next to her father more or less on sufferance. Once the guests had changed seats for dessert, however, Christine moved to sit across from Stephen and Brigid, and the child thanked her very properly for the book. Inquiries among the guests and servants revealed that one of the footmen (a retired former sailor) spoke Dutch fluently but could read never a word, while the Reverend Andrews had some acquaintance with Dutch orthography but did not know the language well, and the ensuing three-sided attempts at translation were greatly successful as a sort of impromptu parlor game, though perhaps less so as a scholarly exercise. William Mowett, however, had an acquaintance in the publishing world whom he warranted as “a capital hand” at translation, and he felt sure an arrangement could be made to turn at least part of the young Miss Maturin’s book into good English for a reasonable fee.

Sophie redirected the perhaps pardonable jealousy of her daughters at all the attention Brigid was getting by suggesting that they might adapt some of the flowers and butterflies in the book’s plates to make quite a lovely embroidery pattern. And George, struck with a sudden notion, disappeared to the attic, to return a quarter of an hour later, his lieutenant’s uniform sadly smirched with dust and spiderwebs. He triumphantly presented Brigid and his sisters with a long-neglected but perfectly serviceable set of watercolors and a quire of paper, and suggested that they collaborate on copying the said pictures.

During the lively discussion that followed, Christine drew Stephen aside.

“I had quite a long talk with Clarissa Andrews, one day when her husband was out visiting his parishioners,” she said. “She is quite a surprising woman, and had some astonishingly frank things to say about the relations between men and women. And about you, and your… forbearance.”

He felt his face grow hot. “She is indeed an unusual woman, with a perspective I fervently hope is unusual, based as it is on her truly appalling early experiences.”

Christine glanced past him at the group of youngsters clustered around the book.  “What would it take, Stephen, to make you as happy as that child is with that book?”

He gave this due thought. He supposed that a man with more address would have said, “the joy of your company for the rest of my life,” or something of the sort, but he felt he owed her more truth than that. And he knew—who better?—that being in love was no guarantee, no guarantee at all, of any degree of happiness for either the lover or the beloved.

“To have time and opportunity to study a few, a very few more, of the infinite number of creatures and processes the world holds,” he said. “The sort of thing I had never enough time to do, when we were at war with Bonaparte, when Jack and I were hurried to and fro across the ocean in every direction. And to have someone to share those wonders with.”

There was a quiet pause, then he said, “And you? What would please you the most?”

“I think,” she said slowly, “that I would never again want to share a bed with any man. But I also think that I have had enough of being alone.” She looked into his face. “Is it possible for you to share your life, and those wonders you spoke of, and perhaps your brilliant daughter, with a woman, without her sharing your bed? In spite of what the world might say?”

“The back of my hand to the world,” he said. “It forms no part of any man’s business, nor any woman’s either, how you and I choose to order our lives. If respectability would be a comfort to you, why then the protection of my name is yours for the asking. And if you would not care for it, then we shall do very well without it, here or in Spain or wherever would suit you best.”

She took his hand. “I hoped for a long time you might say that,” she said, “but until I spoke with Clarissa I scarcely believed it possible.”

He looked down with a rueful smile. “Twenty years ago it might not have been. But if age has been less than kind to my knees and my eyesight, it has at least made continence a very slight burden.”

She squeezed his hand. “Then I accept your proposal, Doctor Maturin. When shall we be married?”

“I am sure Nathaniel Martin would be happy to cry the banns as soon as may be. You know I am a Catholic, but such a marriage as we contemplate would be no marriage at all in Catholic eyes. The Anglican rite will do perfectly well for me, if it will for you.”

She stood, and gave him her hand again. “Then let us add our mite to the joys of the season, and give our friends another reason to celebrate.”