Admiral Aubrey's interminable gunnery practice had just reached its twenty-third full broadside when the port side number three carronade overheated and burst. The burning powder caught Midshipman Milton, recently promoted from the lower deck, full in the eyes. They brought him below to where Stephen Maturin waited for the casualties of the admiral's obsession, but there was little to be done. The young man was quite blind, and destined to remain so.
"I don't know what's to do," said the admiral to his flag captain and surgeon a few days later in the privacy of his great cabin. "Ordinarily, you can just whip off a leg and give them a few weeks' rest." Stephen made as if to speak, then sat back with a resigned look. "But there's nothing else wrong with him. Is there any duty he can do?"
"Well, he's no use as a midshipman," said Pullings, shaking his head slowly. "He can't read the compass nor yet a sextant. It's cruel hard, being as how he's been in the service all his life. Born aboard the Leander, sir," he added for Stephen's benefit.
"I believe I may have a solution," said the doctor. "Surely a man-of-war is the epitome of the maxim, a place for everything and everything in its place, is it not? Indeed, a properly kept ship," with a bow to Pullings, "is undoubtedly more eligible as a residence for the blind than many a landsman's home, especially when you consider that help is always at hand."
"That's all very well, Stephen," said Jack, "but what use is he?"
"Give me a half an hour, and we shall see."
The doctor was back in under fifteen minutes, bringing the young man with him, along with a short length of rope, unpicked at one end. "Now," he said. "Show the admiral what you just showed me."
The young man's hands flickered too fast for the eye to follow, and suddenly before them was a double-crowned wall-knot, the masterpiece of the sailorman's art. A few seconds later it was gone, replaced by a particularly elegant Matthew Walker. Aubrey and Pullings stared.
"All by touch, gentlemen," said Stephen. "Now, Mr. Milton, tell them your idea."
"Turn me before the mast, sir," said the young man, the pleading evident in his voice. "I don't need to read there, and I know every stick aboard. I can haul a rope or turn the capstan or man the pumps as well as any waister. But I ain't no landsman, sir—I can tie any knot you like. Turn me before the mast again. If you was to set me ashore—" He swallowed painfully.
"Do not give up hope, Mr. Milton," said Stephen, patting him kindly. "I have learned from my colleagues in France of a remarkable young man, blind like yourself, who has recently invented a system of writing using raised marks on thick paper. His name is Louis Braille. You may read and write again yet."
"And in the meantime," said Admiral Aubrey, his eyes twinkling, "We shall see how well you can brail up the mainsail, eh? Eh?"
© 2005 The Last of the True French Short Bastards