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Maturin's Morning (1)

Period identification: precedes M&C: Port Mahon: morning of the day of the Governor's concert party. Perceived gap: how on earth did someone as dusty, degage and destitute as Stephen Maturin come to be at the concert?

Stephen Maturin awoke to the sound of groaning. It was some seconds (twenty or more, he estimated with keen interest), before he recognised its source as himself. Upon the realisation, he eased, not without difficulty, into a sitting position and gazed with cold, reptilian dislike at the jagged stone - calcareous - onto which he had rolled during the night.

Nor, as he turned his attention to the day, did it present a more hospitable aspect. Though the east still retained a dusting of golden haze and the sun struck antic sparks from the wind-ruffled surface of the harbour below his aerie, it was unlikely that Joselito's would extend even so much credit as a cup of coffee; and Mr Florey at the hospital who might be relied upon for sustenance in return for chirurgical subvention was at Ciudadela, not expected back before late afternoon, his patients left to the ministrations of his assistants.

This thought urged Stephen to his feet. "Nursing is all!" he muttered: Monday's suprapubic cystotomy exhibited an ominous fever. He swayed for a moment, recovered, and estimated the severity of his light-headedness by taking his pulse the while he mused upon weakness - the brute nature of bellies - the notable effect of spirit on flesh and vice versa - the advantages to be drawn from observing the the true nature of primary inanition. Black wheatears trilled; as he slapped with no very great energy at the more obvious outrages wrought by the night upon his breeches, he improvised upon their modulations, humming in a strange creaky tone that vanished into the parched landscape as though the notes were rain. His wig, cavalierly clapped onto his head, deposited a beetle upon the collar of his dusty black coat. "Paraschizidium olearum," he murmured, gently placing it in a small stoppered bottle drawn from his pocket, along with a blood-stained lancet and some crumbs of garlic'd bread. Cramming the latter into his mouth, he addressed the somewhat narrow and precipitous path that led down from St Damian's ruined chapel.

Satisfied at last with affairs at the hospital, he walked to Joselito's; and was retreating reluctantly before the waiter's stony face and implacably wagging finger when a voice cried: "Sir! Oh, sir! They said I might find you here!"

The small hand that grasped his arm loosed such a flood of numbing misery that he stood transfixed, his pallid cheeks suddenly stained with the faintest tinge of colour. His gaze froze unseeing upon her sloe-dark eyes until her urgency: "Oh, will you come? You will come, sir?" shook him back into time and space.

Lady Warren lay upon the damp tiles of the hall, her face glistening with sweat. Another woman, radiant in blue muslin, knelt beside her. Stephen recognised Molly Harte, the naval commandant's wife. She stared up at him. "I sent for Mr Florey."

Stephen made a leg that could not aspire to elegance for his stockings were worsted, sadly holed and adorned with an obstinate caper-sprig. "He is gone to Ciudadela; the hospital sent your maid to summon me. I am a physician, sure."

"A physician?" Mrs Harte's gaze moved slowly from point to point of his appearance until at last it rested upon his grizzled wig. "Have we met, sir? I hardly think -"

"We have not." Stephen darted past her and bent to his patient. "Now - there is pain here? Just so - you threw out your arm to break your fall, I collect" A simple matter, dislocatio humeri, which we may reduce immediately, with the blessing. Is your husband here? Then we must call upon a manservant to grasp you about the chest, thus - come, this is mere missishness and will not answer - now, my man, do you take firm hold and resist my pressure - so!"

* * *

"I insist you attend at the Governor's House tonight, Doctor." Lady Warren, arm bound securely, sipped brandy to which Stephen had added three drops of laudanum. "It is the greatest scandal and shame that Mahon society knows nothing of you."

"A fine Italian quartetto," Mrs Harte added, "and I am to play as well, you know."

The brandy was admirably warm in Stephen's hollow emptiness: he bowed with only the merest trifle of reluctance. There would be a collation; it would be strange if he could not secrete sufficient to provide for tomorrow; the music might be tolerable; and, if he chose his seat carefully, he would be spared the worst of the soldiers and sailors whose bluff boorishness was apt to curdle any pleasure such functions had to offer.

His heart lifted a little - a very little, to be sure, but lift it did.

© 2001 Lois Anne du Toit