Stephen Maturin stood in Harris' instrument shop, a paper packet of new catgut strings in his hand. Over and beyond the arched and carved necks of a pair of violins he watched a busy and implacable Polistes wasp. It was hunting for spiders at the outside of the window like a well handled French privateer, and he watched her pluck from an invisible crevice an already stung and paralyzed small brownish victim after movements too quick to follow and fly out of sight.
He had arrived not only on time but virtuously early and felt a inner satisfaction at waiting for Jack Aubrey. He sensed motion to his side.
`There you are, Stephen. Have I kept you waiting? - I am grievously sorry that I have, but I was held up at Whitehall'. The beaming face perspired from a hurried walk in the late August warmth.
`It's a soothing place of sanctuary, sure, your music shop. The silence of all the untried instruments, so many open doors to the most generous of human arts, the most gratifying and benevolent of our strivings and ambition.' The wasp's parable on the brevity of life lingered like a fading note.
`Will I tell you about what I heard while waiting at the Admiralty just this last half hour, from old Vine the porter? - he and I was shipmates once in the old *Orion*, Stephen, and his brother is aide de campe to Castlereagh at the Ministry. Oh, how I wish I could have been there to see it - Lord Nelson himself in the anteroom at the Colonial office in Downing Street, with an appointment to see his Lordship, when in walks Arthur Wesley, or Wellesley is what the family calls itself now, the celebrated General who thumped Tipoo Sahib at Sarah's...' Jack groped for, then thought better of any notion of a comical fling.
`Sarangapatam, if I recollect. And straightened up that business in the Mahratta country to such good effect. Diana knew him in India and declares that he is the only man she met there who possessed greatness. You know her father and her husband both perished in that campaign?'
`Yes, of course.' A short pause ensued, each pondering the corkscrew motions of fate.
`Well, General Wellesley recognized immediately the pinned sleeve and famous face of Lord Nelson and engaged him in conversation without delay, after having smoked that he was willing to be spoke to. The General had only just arrived in Town after years in India, and Nelson was stopping there for a last consultation before taking ship on the *Victory*, as he lately did, you know, so it was a lucky stroke for them to have crossed wakes, do you see?'
`Aye, and there's talk that Wellesley is to be going to Portugal soon with an expeditionary force, so to have two such men fighting Boney is a rare blessing, his soul to the devil, the wicked man.'
`Well, the General wasn't known to Lord Nelson, as they had never been in one another's company, and his victories not so famous by way of popularity of the printmaker's shop, you see. And Nelson held court, you might say, talking of himself so that an unfriendly cove might even say he was topping it the nob a bit - though you would need be aquainted with his generous soul to fully understand that this was just his way. Why, the next moment he might be asking you to pass the salt in the most open hearted fashion imaginable. But it seems, in any case, that he noticed a hint of reserve in the General's demeanor and made excuse to leave the room and inquire of the functionary, Viney's brother, who the gentleman was, and finding out, came in again and renewed the conversation by begging pardon of the General for not recognizing him and paid him honor for his many victories in India, displaying a surprising familiarity with his campaigns and moreover his tactics, that warmed the General's countenance. And on they went, hammer and tongs, so I hear, talking on a wide range of subjects concerning the war and the Russian Question, the Baltic, and the woeful need for certain raw materials, the charming advantages of the weather gauge, lines of supply and serviceable horseflesh, for the best part of an hour. Oh, to have been one of your rare two headed spotted lizards then, Stephen, clinging to the wall and able to hear such an interview!'
`No one honors a spy, for all love,' said Stephen as he took Jack's arm with purpose, to lead them out into the noise of Bond Street. He was concerned he might be late for his dinner with Sir Joseph, where he was to tease meaning from the latest cyphered message delivered to him in double seal from friends in Catalonia, next to which in his pocket he negligently thrust the packet of strings.
© 2000 Keith Peterson