‘Verse,’ said Stephen. It was an inexpressible satisfaction to Bonden to write in metre: with a huge childish grin he opened his inkhorn and poised his attentive pen – a booby’s quill.
‘Verse,’ said Stephen again, gazing at the illimitable blue-grey sea and the lop-sided moon above it. ‘Verse:
‘Then we upon our globe’s last verge shall go.
And view the ocean leaning on the sky;
From thence our rolling neighbours we shall know,
And on the lunar world securely pry by God I believe I see the albatross.’
‘ . . . believe I see the albatross,’ said Bonden’s lips silently. ‘It don’t rhyme. Another line, sir, maybe?’ But receiving no answer from his rigid teacher he looked up, followed his gaze, and said, ‘Why so you do, sir. I dare say he will fetch our wake directly, and overhaul us. Wonderful great birds they are, though something fishy, without you skin ‘em. There are some old-fashioned coves that has a spite against them, which they say they bring ill winds.’
The albatross came nearer and nearer, following the ship’s wake in a sinuous path, never moving its wings but coming up at such a pace that what was a remote fleck when Stephen first saw it was an enormous presence by the time Bonden had finished his receipt for albatross pie. An enormous white presence with black wing-tips, thirteen feet across, poised just astern: then it banked, shot along the side, vanished behind the cloud of sails, and reappeared fifty yards behind the ship.
Messenger after messenger ran into the mizentop. ‘Sir, there’s your albatross, two points on the larboard quarter.’ Achmet reported it in Urdu, and immediately afterwards his dull blue face was thrust aside by a ship’s boy from the quarterdeck with ‘Captain’s compliments, sir, and he believes he has seen the bird you was asking after.’ ‘Maturin, I say, Maturin, here’s your albatross!’ This was Bowes, the purser, clambering up by the power of his hands, trailing his game leg.
At last Bonden said, ‘My watch is called, sir. I must be going, asking your pardon, or Mr Rattray will give me the rub. May I send up a pea-jacket, sir? ‘Tis mortal cold.’
‘Ay, ay. Do, do,’ murmured Stephen, unhearing, rapt in admiration.
The bell struck, the watch changed. One bell, two bells, three; the drum for quarters, the beating of retreat – no guns for once, thank God; and still he gazed and still in the fading light the albatross wheeled, dropped astern, occasionally alighting for some object thrown overboard, ran up in a long series of curves, the perfection of gliding ease.
HMS Surprise – Patrick O’Brian