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Kensington, 1824

Once, Stephen Maturin had walked through Kensington, late into the night, at a time of torment and difficulty for him. It was a fresh summer day, however, when Jack Aubrey turned his steps from Green Park towards Kensington, simply wishing to take a bit of air this fine morning.

He stumped along, with the gait of a man not quite at ease, a man who would have been better on a quarterdeck. However, his face was cheerful and he whistled lightly under his breath a passage from Corelli.

Then, the bright blue eyes sharpened at a unusual sight. Standing, irresolute, just a few yards from him, was a child; a very young girl, well-dressed, alone. Fearing she might plunge into the busy street, Jack quickened his pace, came up to her, and doffed his hat. "May I be of assistance, Ma'am?"

She was rosy, plump, with sleek hair. Her pale blue eyes, slightly popped, regarded him gravely.

"My mamma and governess told me only to speak with suitable persons. Are you a suitable person? Will you walk with me?"

"I am a sailor, ma'am," he said; and after reflection added: "A sailor ashore, d-- ... well, dash it. It's dashed inconvenient, let's say."

"My uncle is a sailor," the little girl announced, falling into step beside him. "One of my uncles."

"Well, let me tell you something, missy," Jack said roundly. "Little girls should not worry their relations." He was about to expand on this when the child broke in.

"Do you have a little girl?"

"Why, yes, I have two girls. But they are great girls now; they are turning into young ladies."

"Do they study? I am studying," she said with an air of pride.

"Well -- " Jack hesitated, thinking of the piano tinkling and the dancing-master he abominated, and the ghastly sketches that now encrusted the walls of Ashgrove Cottage. "Why, yes, they study." Hastily seeking new ground, he looked down to his diminutive companion and said to her, "I have a boy, too, a fine boy. He is entered for midshipman -- learning to be a sailor, that is."

"Like my Uncle," the child said complacently.

Jack felt he should add some more good advice. "Mind your book, now. Mind your mamma, and your governess. And be a good girl, always."

"I will!" she cried, with an intensity that surprised him. "I will be good."

They were walking close by the palings of Kensington Palace now. Jack glanced through, seeing its rosy brick facade and the wide expanse of greensward. Here were thick shrubs which partially cut off that view and also concealed the fact that that one of the railings was broken out of its place, leaving a gap. Suddenly his companion stopped.

"I must go now," the child announced. "Thank you for walking with me."

"Will I not see you home?"

"I can see it from here." And she slipped, quick as a hare, through the gap.

He stared after the disappearing figure, the tiny slippers twinkling, the pink-and-white muslin shining gaily in the sun.

Then, suddenly, pulling off his hat again, Jack Aubrey murmured, "God bless her -- God bless her!"

On the air a distant female voice floated, growing shrill with apprehension: "Drina! Drina! Alexandrina Victoria, where are you?"

© 2000 Mary M. Stolzenbach