Week 150: From ‘The Reverse of the Medal’ by Patrick O’Brian

This passage is for me one of the high points in Patrick O’Brian’s meticulously crafted and inexhaustibly readable Aubrey-Maturin series of naval adventures set in Napoleonic times. The naval captain Jack Aubrey, as a result of a rather naïve trust in the British justice system of the time, has been sentenced to the stocks despite the best efforts of his friend Stephen Maturin, ship’s doctor and spy. Jack’s enemies are hoping, via hired bravos, to compound the indignity of the stocks by the infliction of serious injury, but the men with whom he has served over the years have quite other ideas. The passage is a perfect example of the narrative device which Tolkien, in his classic essay ‘On Fairy-stories’, calls ‘eucatastrophe’. 

Jack was led out of the dark room into the strong light, and as they guided him up the steps he could see nothing for the glare. ‘Your head here, sir, if you please,’ said the sheriff’s man in a low, nervous, conciliating voice ‘and your hands just here’.

The man was slowly fumbling with the bolt, hinge and staple, and as Jack stood there with his hands in the lower half-rounds, his sight cleared: he saw that the broad street was filled with silent, attentive men, some in long togs, some in shore-going rig, but all perfectly recognizable as seamen. And officers, by the dozen. Babbington was there, immediately in front of the pillory, facing him with his hat off, and Pullings, Stephen of course, Mowett, Dundas… He nodded to them, with almost no change in his iron expression, and his eye moved on: Parker, Rowan, Williamson, Hervey… and men from long, long ago, men he could scarcely name, lieutenants and commanders putting their promotions at risk, midshipmen and master’s mates their commission, warrant officers their advancement.

‘The head a trifle forward, if you please, sir,’ murmured the sheriff’s man, and the upper half of the wooden frame came down, imprisoning his defenceless face. He heard the click of the bolt and then in the dead silence a strong voice cry ‘Off hats’. With one movement hundreds of broad-brimmed tarpaulin-covered hats flew off and the cheering began, the fierce full-throated cheering he had so often heard in battle.

Patrick O’Brian

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