Patrick O’Brian, the author best known for his roman fleuve series of novels featuring Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin, enjoyed for the last years of his life, a financial success that had eluded him for many years. It was only in the 1990s that American fervor for the Aubrey-Maturin series brought him lasting financial security. Long before he began writing the Aubrey-Maturin books in 1970, O’Brian struggled to get his work published. A first collection of his stories was published in 1950 under the title, The Last Pool. One story in that early collection is a work that included a good amount of autobiography. Like American writer, J.D. Salinger, O’Brian fiercely guarded his private life, but in this early story, the setting, as well as conditions in the protagonist’s life are reflections of the writer’s own experiences. The story is called, “The Happy Despatch.”
It is an emotionally charged work, a very dark story characteristic of O’Brian’s situation throughout the 1940s, and it paints a vivd picture of Man’s hopelessness against the forces of Nature. The two main characters are what anyone would deem a masterpiece of characterization, and telegraph a skill that would emerge full bloom twenty years later in the Aubrey-Maturin books. The main character is a failed man of upper class origins named Woolen. The name itself is a hint at his character, at his sheep-like personality. O’Brian says it this way: ‘He was an incongruous figure, with his mild, sheep-like face and bowed, apologetic shoulders…’ I particularly like his description, ‘incongruous figure,’ an elegant expression portraying awkward and inharmonious.
The other character is Woolen’s wife, ‘a deathless shrew…Her face was a disagreeable purple and flour lay thick upon it; her body, of ponderous bulk, was covered with a deep layer of pale grey fat. She did not wash: she had many disgusting personal habits…wrapped in a mauve thing, on her creaking couch, with a malevolent blur in place of a mind.’
Let no one say that Patrick O’Brian could not put flesh and life’s blood into his characters.
“The Happy Despatch” is about the man, Woolen, someone constantly bullied and taken advantage of. Making nothing of an army career, he proceeds to fail in business, his savings stolen by the man who took him into partnership. Desperate, out of alternatives and along with his horrible wife, he goes to a remote farming village in Wales to try his hand at farming. Spurned by neighbors, turned away by all, his feeble attempts to earn money at farming are doomed by his lack of know how. The single joy in his life is the one day a week he spends fishing in the highlands.
While fishing one afternoon, a day that brings a splendid catch of trout, he makes a life changing discovery there in a high valley. Near his fishing spot is an ancient mound of mysterious origins, around which the river flows, The current suddenly dislodges a large stone at a point near the mound, and before the fisherman’s eyes a huge cache of buried golden coins cascades out onto the riverbank. Recovering from shock, Woolen stuffs his pockets with gold and hides the rest until able to return. Out of breath and overburdened, he heads across the valley toward a town on the other side of the pass, a place he knows will exchange the gold for currency. Tired and disoriented, his mind a flurry of emotions, he fails to note the danger of his pathway over the mountain pass. Suddenly a misstep sends him falling into a deep chasm. O’Brian ends his story with this line: ‘But in the pass he met the keeper of the hoard.’
For those fans of Patrick O’Brian’s long series of Aubrey-Maturin novels who might not be familiar with his early writing, try The Rendezvous and Other Stories.