It is early in the 19th Century. Stephen Maturin has come down from London, where he found his wife had left him and the country, to visit his particular friend Jack Aubrey, Royal Navy Captain, at Jack's home in the country.
Stephen takes the overnight coach and is let out, just before dawn, at a small ale-house from which he will walk overland the rest of the way.
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 with 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 down among the trees. Stephen followed the second; it was steep going, encumbered with brambles and dead bracken on the edge of the wood and farther down with fallen branches and a dead tree or two, but near the bottom he came to a ruined keeper's cottage standing on a grassy plat, its turf kept short by the rabbits that fled away at his approach. The cottage had lost its roof long since and it was filled tight with lilac, not yet in bloom, while nettle and elder had overwhelmed the outbuilding behind; but there was still a stone bench by the door, 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 primaeval 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 never a tremor 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.