by Rachel Kovaciny
The book Master and Commander opens not with a sea battle, a furious storm, some act of derring-do, or swashbuckling heroics. No, the first book in Patrick O’Brian’s magnificent series about the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars opens with a musical concert. An elegant private concert attended by, among others, two complete strangers who sit next to each other.
Jack Aubrey, a beefy naval officer with more cheerful enjoyment of the music than tact, repeatedly annoys his neighbor, Stephen Maturin. Aubrey keeps time to the music by tapping his hand on his knee. Maturin asks him to quit it. Aubrey hums along with the music. Maturin nudges him. Aubrey waves his hand in time with a beautiful phrase or two. Maturin elbows him severely. Aubrey gets so annoyed by this, he utterly cannot enjoy the last few pieces of the concert.
In fact, Jack Aubrey thinks he might just have to demand satisfaction for that last elbowing, it was so pointed and vigorous. He’s not in the best humor anyway, because he’s been passed over for command of a ship repeatedly, he’s running low on money, and his future does not look bright. So he coldly tells Maturin his name and where he’s staying, and Maturin responds in kind. They part, each assuming that they will have to settle this somehow, later on.
For his part, Stephen Maturin can’t believe his ill luck of having to sit next to this boorish sailor who clearly knows nothing about music or how to behave at a concert. The nerve of some people! Just because Aubrey is in the military, that doesn’t mean he can go around ruining people’s concert-going experiences.
The next morning, Aubrey receives a letter informing him that he is to take a command of a naval ship at once. Finally! All his prayers and hopes and dreams are being answered! No more sitting around on land wishing he could advance his career, serve his country, and earn some real money taking enemy ships as prizes! Elated, he rushes off toward the naval offices to thank his superiors, only to spot Maturin across the street.
Aubrey wants to share his good news with anyone at all who might listen. He hails Maturin from across the street, hurries over to him, and apologizes handsomely for his behavior. Surprised by this unexpected reversal, Maturin graciously accepts his apology and invites him to breakfast. Over a pot of chocolate, they discover that they share a mutual love for playing music themselves. Aubrey says he likes to “torment a fiddle from time to time,” and Maturin admits he likes to “make [his] attempts upon the ‘cello.” They have such a good time discussing music at breakfast, and Aubrey is in such a joyful mood over his appointment to a ship that he invites Maturin to dine with him later that day.
Between breakfast and dinner, Jack Aubrey learns that his new ship lacks quite a few crewmen, including a surgeon. Of course, by surgeon, they don’t mean someone who performs what we think of as surgery, such as removing gall bladders and ruptured appendices. They mean someone who extracts bullets and sews up wounds. So Aubrey spends most of his day interviewing potential officers, meeting what crew his ship has, and so on.
Over dinner, he learns much of Stephen Maturin. He speaks many languages and is an amateur naturalist. And he happens to be a physician. Which, at that time, means he’s had more learning and possesses more skill than a mere surgeon. Not only that, but he’d been privately attending an elderly patient who has just died, so he’s at a loose end just then.
You can see where this is going—Aubrey pleads with Maturin to become surgeon on board his ship. Maturin accepts. And thus begins a friendship that spans twenty books and the lifetimes of these two unlikely friends. They play violin and cello duets; they help each other in and out of scrapes; they save each others’ lives, they even fall in love with the same woman for a while. Through it all, they remain the best of friends.
My favorite moment in the whole series comes in one of the last books. Maturin is staying with Aubrey and his family on shore for a while. He wakes up one night because he hears the most wonderful music. He goes to his window and sees that it’s Aubrey, standing outside in the moonlight playing his violin. And Maturin realizes that all this time, Aubrey has been holding back his musical talent to match his friend and not outshine him. That Aubrey is a far more talented musician than Maturin could ever hope to be, but he’s also so kind that he would never showcase his true abilities if it meant embarrassing his friend.
I love that moment because it harks back to their very first meeting, when Maturin assumed Aubrey knew nothing about music, and shows once and for all how futile making such assumptions about strangers can be. A lesson which Aubrey began teaching him the day after they first met, when instead of demanding that Maturin apologize for rudely elbowing him repeatedly during the concert, he apologized for his own behavior and thus gained a friend.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Kovaciny’s western fairy tale retelling novels “Cloaked” and “Dancing & Doughnuts” are now available in paperback and Kindle editions. Learn more about her at her author website, rachelkovaciny.com