The Road to Ashgrove Cottage
The Road to Ashgrove Cottage
Stephen Maturin, posted up from the city, was standing at the entrance to the Lion, Tiger, and Bear ale-house with his baggage by the side of the road while the dim coach disappeared in a dust-cloud of its own making and a long trail of early-morning rooks passed overhead. Presently the door of the ale-house opened and the amiable owner's wife appeared, her hair done up in little rags and her garment held close at the neck with one hand. "Good morning, now, Mrs Comfort," said Stephen. "In time pray let the boy put these things behind the bar till I send for them. I mean to walk to Ashgrove over the fields."
"You will find the Captain there, with some saucy foremast jacks and that wicked old Killick. But won't you step in, sir, and take a little something? It's a long, long way, after a night in the coach."
Stephen knew that the Lion could run to nothing more than tea or small beer, both equally repugnant to him in the morning; he thanked her, and said he believed he should wait until he had walked up an appetite; and when asked whether it would be that wicked old Killick who came in the cart for his portmanteau he said he would make a point of asking the Captain to send him.
For the first mile his road was a lane between high banks and hedges, with woods on the left hand and fields on the right - well-sprung wheat and hay - and the banks were starred all along with primroses, while the hedges had scores of very small cheerful talkative early birds, particularly goldfinches in their most brilliant plumage; and in the hay a corncrake was already calling. Then when the flat land began to rise and fall this lane branched out into two paths, the one carrying on over a broad pasture - a single piece of fifty or even sixty acres with some colts in it - and the other, now little more than a trace, leading right down among the trees. Stephen followed the first; to the left and away from most of the other walkers; it rose a bit and levelled off before a gentle drop, and along this level section he came to a ruined keeper's cottage on the right, standing in a woody plat, its turf kept short by the rabbits that fled away at his approach. The cottage had lost its roof and walls long since and it was filled tight with lilac, not yet in bloom, while nettle and elder had overwhelmed the outbuilding across the road; and there was a collapsed stone inside the northeast corner, and Stephen sat upon it, leaning against the wall. Down here in the hollow the night had not yet yielded, and there was still a green twilight. An ancient wood: the slope was too great and the ground too broken for it ever to have been cut or tended and the trees were still part of the primeval forest; vast shapeless oaks, often hollow and useless for timber, held out their arms and their young fresh green leaves almost to the middle of the clearing, held them out with never a tremor, for down here the air was so still that gossamer floated with no perceptible movement at all. Still and silent: although far-off blackbirds could be heard away on the edge of the wood and although the stream at the bottom murmured perpetually the combe was filled with a living silence.
He sat on as the sun's rays came slowly down through the trees, lower and lower, and when the lowest reached a branch not far above him it caught a dewdrop poised upon a leaf. The drop instantly blazed crimson, and a slight movement of his head made it show all the colours of the spectrum with extraordinary purity, from a red almost too deep to be seen through all the others to the ultimate violet and back again. Some minutes later a cock pheasant's explosive call broke the silence and the spell and he stood up, leaving this moment behind on the seat by the wall.
At the edge of the wood the blackbirds were louder still, and they had been joined by blackcaps, thrushes, larks, monotonous pigeons, and a number of birds that should never have sung at all. His way now led him through ordinary country, field after field, eventually reaching Jack's woods, where the honey buzzards had once nested. But is was ordinary country raised to the highest power: the mounting sun shone through a faint veil with never a hint of glare, giving the colours a freshness and an intensity Stephen had never seen equaled. The green world and the gentle, pure blue sky might just have been created : and as the day warmed a hundred scents drifted through the air.
Patrick O'Brian, © 1986: The Reverse of the Medal